Soothing the savage beast: Michael Jackson and classical music (part 3 of 4)

It seems an unlikely pair – Michael Jackson and classical music. Yet the King of Pop’s longtime passion for classical music permeated both his work and private life. Compositions of the past satisfied his musical curiosity, supported his ambition to learn from the greats, and soothed his soul. Classical music is what Jackson had hoped to command and create, just months before he passed away.

Michael Jackson classical music
Michael Jackson and classical music (photo: video still)

Leonard Bernstein’s conducting lesson

A serious opportunity for Jackson to work with a classical composer and conductor arrived on the 8th of August 1986. It was the day Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic at UCLA’s Royce Hall. As this date was close to Bernstein’s birthday, he was asked if he had any special wishes. Bernstein replied that he wanted to meet Jackson, whom he described as “the most electrifying pop star I’ve seen since the Beatles.”

The invitation was sent, but Jackson hesitated. Despite his passion for classical music, he had been to very few classical concerts and had no idea what to expect. After some gentle coaxing, however, he agreed to attend the concert as Bernstein’s guest of honour. David Pack, a close friend of Bernstein who organized the meeting, shared his memories of the event in Reader’s Digest in 2009:

“Leonard wanted to introduce Michael to classical music and maybe inspire Michael toward a collaboration of classical and pop music. (…) At one point, Leonard draped his long white scarf around his neck and Michael’s for a series of photos, then stood up and gave Michael a conducting lesson on the spot. Later, these two musical giants bonded over… acne! They both had problems with it, and somehow that very embarrassing personal topic was their major connecting point. Leonard would talk about this for years to come. Michael called me the next day and asked for photos from that night, and he was thrilled when he got them.”

Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson
Leonard Bernstein (left) and Michael Jackson (right) at UCLA, Royce Hall, 8th of August 1986 (photo: Bert Bial, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Archives)

Hearing classical music live

Although Jackson was delighted to meet Bernstein, their meet-and-greet did not lead to any collaborative music projects. Also, strictly speaking, Bernstein’s concert was not the first time that Jackson heard classical music performed live.

In the early 1980s, for example, Jackson was invited to a classical ballet by Suzanne de Passe, who had helped him launch his career during his early Motown years. The ballet in question was Firebird, which was set to Igor Stravinsky’s composition of the same name.

“One day I was driven over to pick him up and the two of us went to see Dance Theater of Harlem perform ‘Firebird’ at a matinee”, De Passe told Essence in 2009. “We spent the afternoon at the ballet and it was very, very special. We had a great time. We snuck in and people couldn’t believe it. They thought it was a look alike.”

Many years later, in 1994, Jackson walked in on an impromptu piano recital by Roberta Swedien, a classical pianist and daughter of Jackson’s recording engineer Bruce Swedien.

“The first time I met Michael, he was standing in the doorway of Studio Two, at the Hit Factory in New York. I was at the piano, playing the lightning-speed ‘Gigue’ from Bach’s B-Flat Major Partita. Brad Buxer was my only audience, or so I thought. Finally, looking up I saw Michael and realized he had been standing there, listening. He so enjoyed the surprise on my face; we both burst out laughing. He also enjoyed Bach. I’ll never forget the radiance in his eyes, like they were dancing”, Swedien shared in her father’s book In the Studio With Michael Jackson (2006).

Classical music proved to be a topic of interest that Swedien and Jackson had in common. “Michael asked me to chose some classical piano CDs for him to listen to”, she recalled. “I suggested the French Impressionists, in particular the Debussy Preludes, exquisite soundscapes with titles like ‘What The West Wind Saw’, ‘Sunken Cathedral’, and ‘Sounds and Scents Mingle in the Evening Air’. He loved the imagery and was anxious to hear the music.”

Three years later, Jackson visited Poland, where the mayor of Warsaw invited him to a piano recital at the Royal Theatre in the Old Orangery. While classical pianist Bartłomiej Kominek played Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, opus 31, Jackson was joined by a young fan, who seemed to find the recital a little less interesting than Jackson did.


François Glorieux’s symphonic tribute

In the meantime, other classical music projects crossed Jackson’s path. Although Bernstein’s wish to collaborate never became a reality, the idea of fusing Jackson’s greatest hits with classical music did not dissipate. Instead, it gestated elsewhere. Unknown to Jackson, Belgian pianist, composer and conductor François Glorieux worked on a similar project, and not without success.

Glorieux is reknowned for ‘translating’ popular music into classical compositions for piano, brass and symphony orchestra. His work on the Beatles in the 1970s, in particular, brought him fame that went beyond the borders of Belgium. Touring the world as a pianist and conductor, he came across Jackson’s music in the early 1980s.

Immediately, Jackson’s performance triggered his imagination. So Glorieux sat down at his piano and began to work. The result was Tribute to Michael Jackson (1985), an album containing eight acoustic compositions based on Jackson’s life and work, played by François Glorieux and his Orchestra.

Eventually, the album found its way to Jackson himself. Impressed with Glorieux’s work, Jackson invited the composer to Los Angeles in May 1989. Utterly surprised, Glorieux accepted the invitation and met Jackson in an office on Wilshire Boulevard. Recalling the event in 2016 (interview with the author – AL), Glorieux said with a smile:

“He talked about classical music and said ‘My three favourite composers are Mozart, Prokofiev and Debussy’. Debussy surprised me, because it’s French impressionism and that’s something entirely different. As for Mozart, perhaps that was because Mozart was also a child and very young… and then Prokoviev. But Debussy?”

Michael Jackson classical music
François Glorieux’s first meeting with Michael Jackson (left) / François Glorieux And His Orchestra ‘Tribute To Michael Jackson’ (right) – (photos: François Glorieux


Classical charity concert

What surprised Glorieux even more, however, was Jackson’s plan to organize a charity concert which he wanted Glorieux to conduct. “I’ve heard your CD with brass”, he told Glorieux. “I love brass, but I’d like you to arrange my best songs for a large symphony orchestra. A classical symphony orchestra.”

Jackson’s idea, according to Glorieux, was to organize a concert for Unicef at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Glorieux was to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and perform twelve of Jackson’s greatest hits in an acoustic arrangement. Moreover, Glorieux was to wear Jackson’s single white glove, while Jackson, as host of the event, would sit front row in the audience.

Delighted with the assignment, Glorieux returned home and began the elaborate job of arranging Jackson’s music for a large symphony orchestra. Working alone, it took him weeks to complete ‘Liberian Girl’, the first song he presented to Jackson in 1990. This was later followed by ‘Bad’ and ‘Smooth Criminal’, which brought the total to three of the twelve works Jackson had in mind.

Yet Jackson’s idealism and Glorieux’s enthusiasm were not enough to make the project happen. Due to conflicting work schedules and changing management, their musical collaboration eventually faltered. Much to Glorieux’s regret, the concert Jackson had in mind remained a dream: magical, but just beyond his grasp.

Michael Jackson classical music
Michael Jackson and François Glorieux discuss ‘Liberian Girl’, 1990 (photo: François Glorieux)

Concerts and secret recordings

Still, this did not mean that Glorieux permanently shelved his work. He conducted his three symphonic arrangements in concert with the National Symphony Orchestra of London, for example. The large-scale concerts took place in Brussels in October 1992 and in Gent in March 1993. La Semaine d’Anvers, a weekly magazine that reviewed the concert in Brussels, described Glorieux’s ‘Liberian Girl’ as “gentle and melancholic”, whereas ‘Bad’ and ‘Smooth Criminal’ “bursted with extraordinary sparkle and complexity.”

Glorieux has a private tape with recordings of his Jackson songs in concert. Getting his work taped, however, was not as simple and straightforward as it may sound, as many orchestras did not allow for any informal or unofficial recordings. Yet in 1990 Glorieux needed an orchestral recording of ‘Liberian Girl’ to get Jackson’s further approval for the project. Working as a guest conductor for the BBC Radio Orchestra at the time, Glorieux managed to persuade a sound technician at the Royal Festival Hall to secretly record the song during the orchestra’s performance.

Glorieux still treasures his ‘secret’ Jackson tape, which he thought he had lost until rediscovering it in his personal archives in 2016. Just like his memories of meeting the King of Pop, Glorieux’s classical interpretation of Jackson’s music remains vivid, colourful and energetic. His project with Jackson may not have come to completion, but for Glorieux it was a musical journey to remember for a lifetime.

François Glorieux and his three Michael Jackson arrangements for symphony orchestra
François Glorieux and his three Michael Jackson arrangements for symphony orchestra, 2016 (photo: Annemarie Latour)

© Annemarie Latour

My gratitude goes to Prof. Eleonora Beck for sharing the brief outline of her unpublished lecture ‘The Influence of Classical Music on Michael Jackson’, which was held at Lewis & Clark College on the 9th of February 2010. I am also grateful to François Glorieux, whom I was privileged to meet in 2016 and who kindly shared his remarkable story of meeting Michael Jackson in person.

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