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15 Years Ago: Billy Joel Gets Classical on ‘Fantasies and Delusions’

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It had been eight years since Billy Joel had released his last pop and rock album, 1993’s River of Dreams. And in those eight years, the singer-songwriter had become disenfranchised with popular music. He began listening to classical works he had been first exposed to as a young student in classical piano.

“I let these symphonies pound over me,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “Last time I felt like this was the first time I listened to Led Zeppelin. I felt puny. I am nothing, I am insignificant.” But not so insignificant that he couldn’t write his own classical pieces. Although classical influences had played a part in his pop oeuvre – even “The Longest Time” had roots in Mozart – the great composers inspired him to begin creating solely instrumental, thematic material.

“It’s time for me. I’m in my forties. I want to get out of this box I’ve been working in,” he remembered. Joel focused “mostly to the romantics. Schumann. Schubert. I listened to Brahms, the Germans. I became enamored of Rachmaninoff.”

Over time, he crafted a bunch of piano pieces, trading Tin Pan (Alley) for Chopin. Because he struggled with musical notation, Joel would play music into a computer and a copyist would transcribe his compositions. He also struggled with playing the compositions to their fullest extent because, as a pop performer, Joel didn’t have the chops to pull it off.

“My left hand is not really good,” Joel admitted to NPR. “I didn’t study to be a concert pianist. I got to a certain point in my piano lessons [when] I realized I wasn’t going to be Vladimir Horowitz. I didn’t even want to be one of those guys. I wanted to compose, and it’s not unusual for a composer to not perform his own work.”

Joel was introduced to a musician who would bring a dynamism and grace to the pieces via his brother, Alexander Joel, who conducts opera. That’s how English-South Korean pianist Hyung-ki “Richard” Joo became the piano man who stood in for the Piano Man. Joo recorded Joel’s works in Glen Cove, N.Y., but when those sessions proved to be unsatisfactory, he re-recorded the pieces in Vienna.

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The album, titled Fantasies & Delusions, was released on Sept. 27, 2001, featuring Joel’s compositions and Joo’s musicianship. The album’s cover design was an homage to the Schirmer classical sheet music from which Joel had played as a kid. Joel’s fan base pushed a classical recording to No. 83 on the Billboard album chart and kept it at No. 1 on the classical chart for 18 weeks.

Critics from both the classical and pop worlds were kind, if not glowing, in reviews of the album, praising how Joel’s familiar melodic gifts melded with 19th century inspirations. Some thought the music was too derivative of his favorite composers, and hoped he would find a greater range of emotion and styles (as on his catalog of pop albums) when he created future classical albums.

But there would be no future classical albums (at least not yet). Joel hasn’t made a new album (either pop or classical) since Fantasies & Delusions, though he continues to perform his old material, and sometimes plays a bit of his classical music as concert interludes. Ten years after releasing his first – and last – classical LP, Joel discussed how classical music remains to hold his interest.

“I’m actually the closest to this recording [Fantasies & Delusions] of any of the recordings I’ve done,” he said in 2011. “This is more ‘me’ than anything right now.”

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