Music News & Reviews

Singer takes Michael Jackson act to a new level with Philharmonic

Omar Cardona will perform the music of Michael Jackson with the Lexington Philharmonic at Picnic with the Pops on Saturday at Keeneland Race Course.
Omar Cardona will perform the music of Michael Jackson with the Lexington Philharmonic at Picnic with the Pops on Saturday at Keeneland Race Course. Photo provided

Omar Cardona absorbed the full cultural phenomenon that was Michael Jackson the way most of the world did during the 1980s.

Sure, the Quincy Jones-produced hits that Jackson took to the top of the pop charts — “Billie Jean,” “Off the Wall,” “Beat It” and a dozen or so others — were all over radio. But it was through Jackson’s famed music videos, where the full dance and theatrical impact of his music played out like movie musicals, that aspiring Orlando singer Cardona found inspiration.

He will perform Saturday with the Lexington Philharmonic’s second Picnic at the Pops program, “The Music of Michael Jackson.”

“As a kid, I grew up in a very religious home,” Cardona said. “So my way of just being different to the family was listening to artists like Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Usher and Stevie Wonder. I used to listen to those people, wanting to be like them.

“I learned so many Michael Jackson moves just by watching his music videos over and over and over again. I’ve been working professionally as a singer for the last 10 to 15 years. Even though I never met the man, he was a huge inspiration to young artists like myself.”

Cardona has performed Jackson’s music in smaller ensemble and orchestral concerts, in which the repertoire was split between the pop works of multiple artists. Saturday, though, represents a new venture: an entire orchestral show devoted exclusively to Jackson hits.

“This one is going to be a very different direction from what I’m used to,” he said. “Usually, when I have sung with orchestras, it has always been a mixture of different music. This one is just going to be focused on Michael Jackson. The Lexington Philharmonic has a clear direction and vision for what it’s doing.”

Cardona said the biggest challenges of performing Jackson’s music center around the vocal demands: the stamina and range required to sing them. “Michael Jackson’s range was crazy,” he said. But he has tried gain a full understanding of the music’s construction, orchestration and arrangements for his concerts.

“Michael Jackson’s musicality is a big, big thing for me. I’ve watched videos of his tours, interviews and rehearsal processes, and he knew his music from the piano lines to the drum licks to the guitar solos. As a singer and a dancer, he knew his music like the back of his hand.

“That was something I’ve taken to heart in my career. Whenever I work with a band, I make sure I not only know my vocal parts, but also what the people behind me are playing as well. It’s the big picture, not just the small details. It’s everything that’s involved.”

A veteran of overseas concerts, cruise-ship residencies and work with his hometown’s two prominent entertainment centers — Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort — Cardona cited “Rock with You,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” and “Billie Jean” among his favorite Jackson tunes. The hits are largely engrained in the consciousness of an entire pop generation, Cardona said he strives to make such familiar music new to himself and his audiences.

“I’m a singer who likes to challenge himself, so I try to find those ad-libs and riffs that are kind of out of the box and might seem strange but still become a homage to the music,” he says. “Michael Jackson has written in his songs where you have so much flexibility in the music. So it’s really cool to be able to find a different outlet, a different lick, a different melody line to create. It’s something that happens to this music at every show.”

If you go

Picnic with the Pops

What: Outdoor concerts with the with the Lexington Philharmonic and guest artists

Aug. 18: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” movie show with the Philharmonic playing the score live

Aug. 19: “The Music of Michael Jackson” featuring vocalist Omar Cardona

When: Gates open at 6 p.m. each night; performance at dusk.

Where: Keene Meadow at Keeneland

Tickets: $20 (general admission blanket/low back chair seating each night), $200-$300 (table seating for eight on Aug, 18), $250-$400 (table seating for eight on Aug. 19)

Call: 859-233-3535