Saturday 25 May 2019

When The Piano man returned to his classical roots

Billy Joel. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Billy Joel. Photo: Steve Humphreys

George Hamilton

If you have tickets for Billy Joel at the Aviva tonight, I'm dead jealous. My enjoyment of the American rocker's music goes back 40 years. Its combination of catchy melodies and social commentary has proven a winning formula. Though he hasn't released a studio album since 1993, the enduring appeal of his compositions means he's still able to fill a stadium.

The Piano Man hasn't been entirely idle over those two-and-a-half decades. It's just that his musical experimentation has taken him off in a different direction, back towards his classical roots.

The line can be traced to his German father, Helmuth, who was a teenager when his family fled the Nazis and ended up in the US. Helmuth changed his name to Howard, was drafted and served in Europe during World War II. He was with the US Seventh Army Divisions which liberated the concentration camp at Dachau in 1945.

Howard Joel had been classically trained as a pianist, and after Billy was born in 1949, it soon became clear that he'd inherited the gene. He'd pick out snatches of Mozart he'd heard, he'd make up with little tunes of his own. The piano lessons fired his enthusiasm for classical music. The training the boy had has stood him in good stead over the years, and when writing rock stopped, it was to classical he returned.

The music of the greats had never been far away. The introduction to his signature tune features a brisk improvisation that could serve as a 20th-century mirror to the classical concerto's cadenza. He's been known to perform some of his music in the style of Mozart.

There's one song, 'This Night' from the 1983 album An Innocent Man, that features a chorus lifted directly from a very famous work for the piano. The use of the slow movement of the Sonata Pathétique earns a songwriting credit for its composer, one L.v. Beethoven.

The change in creative direction that took hold 25 years ago was inspired by a desire to revive his interest in what had got him started in music in the first place. As he put it at the time, he wanted to get out of the box he'd been working in.

He listened to the Romantic symphonies of Brahms, to the music of Schumann and Schubert, to Rachmaninoff and he set about writing in their style. His time as a rock performer had blunted his ability to read music, and notating a score proved beyond him, so he'd record what he came up with, then play it through a synthesiser, and send the result to a copyist to transcribe.

Not all of it was published, but he did release a classical album in 2001, albeit with another performer at the keyboard - he reckoned his own playing wouldn't be up to it!

So it's the British-Korean concert pianist Richard Joo who features on Fantasies and Delusions, a suite of 10 pieces in the Romantic style, a kind of homage to the composers Joel enjoys. There's an impressionistic Reverie and several waltzes, amid a collection that is always melodic, referencing the music of Chopin and Liszt, to name but two. The anthology ends, appropriately enough for the night that's in it, with an Air that's entitled 'Dublinesque', the Irish mood captured by allusions to 'Danny Boy'.

Billy isn't the only member of his family to have made music his career. His stepbrother, who studied in Vienna, is an eminent conductor, principally of opera. During the season just ended, Alexander Joel conducted performances of 'Cavelleria Rusticana', 'Pagliacci', and 'Tosca'. There was also a visit to Covent Garden to take his place on the podium for a production of Verdi's 'Rigoletto'.

Of the Piano Man, he says:, "He's my half brother, and he does his job. We're both musicians. He goes on and plays in front of 40,000 people - I do the same thing in front of a smaller crowd."

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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