If Saturday night’s alright for fightin’, then Friday night’s alright for a North Carolina Symphony collaboration on the renowned works of mega-musician Sir Elton John. On Friday night, conductor Wesley Schulz, clad in apropos sequined high top sneakers, and the NCS welcomed singer-songwriter Michael Cavanaugh as they hosted an evening of Elton John’s greatest hits. Cavanaugh joined the orchestra to provide lead vocals and piano in addition to his four piece band, including lead and bass guitar, drums, and electronic keyboard. With Sir Elton himself scheduled for a tour stop in Greensboro later this year, this NCS selection was well-timed, to say the least. 

The set opened with several early smashes for the Rocket Man, tunes like “Philadelphia Freedom” and “I’m Still Standin’,” that allowed the iconic piano for which Elton John became known to shine, particularly in the familiar hit “Your Song.” The orchestra enjoyed a jazzy exchange with the band during a performance of “Take me to the Pilot,” the B-side to “Your Song,” before really taking the spotlight for the first time during the instrumental introduction to “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.”The subsequent “left turn” in the programming allowed the orchestra to continue to flex their mastery of rhythm and dynamics while the vocalist took a break during a set of hits from the band Chicago, featuring Cavanaugh’s band on lead guitar, drums, electronic keyboard, bass guitar, and vocals. After that unexpected but enjoyable deviation, the performance went full tilt until intermission with three back-to-back raucous hits; “Honky Cat,” featuring a piano solo by Cavanaugh, “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin'”.

After a ten-minute intermission, the second half began with “Pinball Wizard,” offering the same energy the first half went out on with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin’.”

A little buried treasure for big fans – while Elton John didn’t write “Pinball Wizard,” he did perform the number in the film adaptation of the 1969 rock opera Tommy, for which it was written by Pete Townsend of The Who. Elton John’s hit “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin'” is based on the rock n’ roll sound of bands like The Who, and they covered the tune in 1991.

The melodies of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Rocket Man” flowed beautifully from one to the next before Cavanaugh took another “left turn,” although this time more in keeping with the style of the night. Cavanaugh performed his original piece, “Dig In” before the band took a break for the anticipated performance of “Candle in the Wind.” Tried and true NCS fans who may have been disappointed with the sound thus far in the program were certainly pleased with this number in particular. Notably, the sound mixing favored Cavanaugh’s rock band throughout the evening, sacrificing the nuances of the symphonic compositions at times. “Candle in the Wind” offered a reprieve for those yearning to hear the more traditional symphonic sound. Cavanaugh took his final vocal rest of the evening while the band returned to join NCS on what Maestro Schulz cleverly deemed “Riffer Madness,” a medley of favorite rock ‘n roll riffs including “Eye of the Tiger,” “I Love Rock ‘n Roll,” and “Another Brick in the Wall.” Cavanaugh rejoined the ensemble for the well-known “Sweet Home Alabama” before paying homage to the man who gave him his start with Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” The show closed out with Elton John’s beloved “Tiny Dancer” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” but could not end before the audience cheered Schulz and Cavanaugh back to the stage for the encore and finale, “Crocodile Rock.”

The North Carolina Symphony will add to the fun with Saturday’s performances of “The Music of Elton John” with an add-on option with their Young Professionals Program. Package purchase will gain young professional ticket holders access to a private downtown after party featuring Elton John karaoke, pizza, drinks, and a special Q&A with Elton John’s first manager, Ray Williams. This one-of-a-kind option, in addition to fun contemporary offerings like “The Music of Elton John,” once again solidifies what a gift the North Carolina Symphony brings to the Raleigh community and beyond.

This performance repeats Saturday, January 18,at 3p and 8p. See our sidebar for details.