On Saturday, the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the baton of Robert Franz, offered a capacity crowd an evening's worth of Billy Joel music. With Michael Cavanaugh -- veteran of the Broadway musical "Movin' Out," which combined the choreography of Twyla Tharp with the music of Joel to great success -- handling piano and vocals and the members of the orchestra doing their best to look like they cared, the program came off without a hitch.
Which is not the same as suggesting it was flawless. The flaws, however, were not in execution. They came mostly from the conception side.
This was not the fault of Cavanaugh, his rock band or the orchestra members. Nor was it the fault of the arrangements foisted upon Joel's impeccably crafted pop and rock compositions. The crack in the armor finds its genesis in the very notion of fusing symphonic music and what rather annoyingly still gets called "pop." Sometimes, when the pop music's harmonic construction lends itself well to orchestral embellishment, it works. Sometimes, when the pop either doesn't need the help, or is too primitive to benefit from it, both the popular and classical idioms are underserved.
Saturday's concert offered a bit of both. There were moments when Joel's ornate compositions took on added depth, courtesy of the arrangements. There were also moments when one wondered why orchestras need stoop to sawing away at pop tunes, and just as many when one wondered why rock feels the necessity to put on a tuxedo and "get serious."
First, the good news. The opening overture, which fused a number of Joel tunes together, most notably, the rapid-fire, staccato line that heralds "The Angry Young Man." Cavanaugh arrived then, and tore into "Angry Young Man" proper. The ensemble didn't play the whole tune, though, instead morphing it into "Movin' Out," the Joel declaration of independence that opened what many consider to be his finest album, the 1977 release, "The Stranger." So far, so good. "Uptown Girl" found Cavanaugh comfortable with the doo-wop basis of the song, while the orchestra looked downright insulted.
Then came something truly beautiful, a wonderful fusion of pop and orchestral music serving Joel's transcendent ballad, "She's Got a Way," quite well. The arrangement -- which consisted of Cavanaugh's piano and vocal with support from the strings, and then unfolded into strings and brass -- gave sublime support to Cavanaugh's spot-on vocal. This was truly the evening's high point. Cavanaugh's tenor echoed Joel's, but he sang the song passionately, as if it was his own.
Less strong was the mid-set inclusion of a pair of Elton John songs -- "Crocodile Rock" and John's arrangement of the Who's "Pinball Wizard." These were not only out of place, but didn't work too well either.
The show's centerpiece was the Joel mini-suite, "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," which went well enough, as did the doo-wop-themed "The Longest Time," "Keepin' the Faith" and "Tell Her About It."
Joel's songs are timeless pop paeans. The Philharmonic played beautifully, was aptly conducted by Franz, and often stunningly led by Cavanaugh and his band. Still, one was left wondering if any of this was really necessary.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
"A Tribute to Billy Joel" with Michael Cavanaugh on Saturday night in Kleinhans Music Hall.