Few artists can approach Michael Jackson when it comes to the enormous impact he had on the world of pop music. From his childhood days as a member of the Jackson 5 through the video era that produced “Thriller,” to the popular commercial he shot for Pepsi-Cola and the 13 Grammy Awards he won, the late performer remains a genuine pop music icon.
The Oklahoma City Philharmonic will pay tribute to the King of Pop in a pops concert pair titled “The Music of Michael Jackson.” Guest conductor Brent Havens will be joined by featured vocalist James Delisco, two backup vocalists and a quartet of instrumentalists for a concert that will showcase music from Jackson's 40-year career.
A Berklee-trained conductor and arranger, Havens broke into the symphonic pops world when he created a tribute show to the band Led Zeppelin in 1995. Its enormous success led to similar packaged shows that celebrate the music of the Who, Queen, the Eagles, Pink Floyd and the Doors.
“The Michael Jackson show was the first time we went outside the classic rock world into more of a legend series,” Havens said recently. “The idea was to hire a killer singer and a band and then wrap the orchestra around it.”
As the production began taking shape, Havens held auditions for singers who could capture the essence of Michael Jackson without turning it into a mere impersonation. After putting out an audition notice, Havens began the arduous task of poring through recordings and videos that were submitted.
“For the Michael Jackson show, I wasn't looking for an American Idol-style performer,” Havens said. “There were very specific (vocal) requirements, and this person also had to be able to dance. We flew in four people to audition, and James was the first one we saw.
“He had everything we were looking for, including the moves and the experience to handle a crowd. I learned that lesson the hard way when I hired two kids in 1997 for the Pink Floyd show. They were spectacular cover singers, but when I put them in front of 7,000 people at an amphitheater, they were like deer in headlights. Their jaws dropped, and they forgot the lyrics. It was obvious that the people we hire have to be top professionals in their field.”
Given that Jackson's music embraced elements of pop, rock, rhythm and blues, disco and hip hop, I wondered if Havens had any concerns about the challenges of merging those styles into a symphonic program.
“Before I decided to put this show together, I listened to his whole catalog,” Havens said. “We need about 18 tunes for a show like this, and there were certain tunes (“Thriller,” “Billie Jean”) that I had to include no matter what.
“Some of the Zeppelin songs were massive hits, but I just couldn't make them work in this context. You can't ask an orchestra to play four chords for eight minutes. The Michael Jackson charts give the orchestra a whole lot to do.”
As with any orchestral pops show that ventures into the arena of pop music, the musical selections must convey the spirit and energy of the original tunes. Arrangers who aren't sensitive to this issue can end up leaving audiences disappointed.
“People often ask me why I didn't create my own interpretation of a popular song instead of making it sound more like the original,” Havens said. “I understand their thinking, but the audiences who come to these shows know every guitar lick and drum solo. If they don't recognize the tune in the first couple of bars, I haven't done my job correctly.”