Billy Joel chooses EMF for world premiere of concerto

by Ogi Overman

Tom Philion may or may not be a ‘“Star Trek’” fan, but since taking the helm of the Eastern Music Festival around the turn of the millennium, he routinely and ‘“boldly goes where no man has gone before.’” With each successive year he dreams up new ways to meld classical with every other genre of music, taking the EMF into the cosmos of artistic endeavor, public performance and the nurturing of pre-professional talent.

But this year, stardate 2006, either Philion has completely outdone himself or the stars aligned so perfectly that a cosmic convergence is upon us. If one’s goal were to bring every single element together for one celestial event, then Saturday, June 24 would be it.

For starters, it is the opening night of EMF, which is always special. But when one takes a pop music icon, adds one of the world’s most celebrated classical pianists, tosses in a Tony-winning conductor, and tops it off with an orchestra whose members are drawn from the elite ensembles across the United States, the event takes on a significance of otherworldly proportions. Unbelievably, though, that’s not the best part.

The component that truly makes this evening a once-in-a-lifetime performance is the fact that it is a world premiere ‘— and the first time happens only once. Specifically, it marks the premiere of the Billy Joel Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, performed by soloist Jeffrey Biegel and the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra, with Stuart Malina conducting.

While this may seem a departure for a man who has had 33 Top 40 hits, sold over 100 million records, been nominated for a Grammy 23 times (and won six), and been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, in truth it is in keeping with Joel’s longstanding relationship with and support of classical music. He has been holding ‘“master class’” sessions on college campuses for more than 20 years, established the Rosalind Joel Scholarship for the Performing Arts at City College in New York, and provides seed money for endowments and scholarships to a number of East Coast colleges and music schools.

The material for this concerto is drawn from a 2001 Joel work that was eight years in the making, Fantasia and Delusions. That collection of solo piano pieces spent 18 weeks atop Billboard’s classical chart and was named the year’s top classical album. Jeffrey Biegel himself arranged the piano parts for this concerto, saying that Joel’s harmonies and melodies are ‘“no doubt a tribute to Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Tschaikowsky and others.’”

Among his lengthy accomplishments, Biegel is perhaps best known for assembling the largest consortium of orchestras ‘— more than 25 ‘— to celebrate the new millennium with an original concerto composed for him by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, titled Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra. In May 2006, after assembling the world’s first global consortium, he premiered a new work composed for him by Lowell Liebermann, Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra, with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Because of the extraordinary nature of this event, it will take place in a larger venue than Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium ‘— the 2,200-seat War Memorial Auditorium at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Tickets are still available ‘— but may not be for long ‘— at the coliseum box office, select Triad area Lowe’s Food Stores, online at, or by phone at 888.397.3100.

This is a concert not to be missed. The stars may never align this way again.

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