With the release of the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, the legacy of pop star Michael Jackson gets more complicated each day. Calls to put away his music for good grow numerous, but the infectious beats of his hit songs remain on playlists the world over.

As headlines, public discussions, and boycotts multiplied, the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (YOSA) had a difficult decision to make. Should it go ahead with its planned Classic Albums Live! performance of Jackson’s Thriller?

“We started to realize this is more harrowing and troubling than I might have imagined,” said Troy Peters, YOSA music director, as the extent of child sexual abuse allegations against the famous singer became clear. The Thriller concert was on the schedule for Mar. 11, a week after the documentary was first broadcast, but had been planned almost a year earlier.

In discussing how to proceed, YOSA musicians, staff, and administration all agreed. “The musicians involved uniformly expressed a desire to bring this to the stage,” Peters said, “but we all agreed we wanted to use this as a moment to have a positive impact in the context of this horrible circumstance.”

As a result, for its Thriller Live! concert at 8 p.m. on Monday, March 11, at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, YOSA invited several San Antonio nonprofit organizations that deal with child abuse to participate.

So far, the organizations involved will be ChildSafe and Roy Maas Youth Alternatives, both serving abused and neglected youth; and San Antonio Clubhouse and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) San Antonio, both of which serve adults living with mental illness, some of whom are suffering with PTSD from childhood trauma. Other organizations may be added, Peters said.

All will join the event as a means to offer information and gather support for their efforts to prevent abuse, and offer help to adult survivors of child abuse.

“There’s a chance here for people who attend to think about something positive they can do in reaction to this situation,” Peters said.

That the YOSA student musicians, guest musicians, staff, and guest organizations all wanted to go ahead with the concert speaks to the complexity of the issue, Peters explained. Thriller is a 30-times-platinum-selling record, according to Billboard magazine, and its memorable melodies are regularly heard on radio, on dance floors, at high school football games throughout Texas. Many people grew up with the record, Peters said.

Most importantly, like most musical projects, Thriller was a collaborative effort among “lots of other actors, writers, directors, and craftspeople who worked on these productions,” he said.

“That’s honestly part of why there were so many people saying, ‘Let’s move forward.’ We have all been working on this and actively planning on it not just for a couple weeks, but for close to a year.”

The timing might be unfortunate, but the fact remains that Thriller  was the top request for YOSA’s Classic Albums Live! series, and the decision was made shortly after last year’s performance of Hotel California, the Eagles’ 1976 hit record. (Coincidentally, last year the Eagles overtook Jackson as the all-time best-selling album in the United States, with Hotel California at No. 3 on the list.)

The production of legendary producer and musician Quincy Jones is a major reason Thriller translates so well to orchestra. Jones is “such a genius of using the palette of interesting sounds, interesting arrangements, and rich details. When musicians think, ‘What would sound amazing with an orchestra?’ this is the top of the list,” Peters said.

“The way he uses strings, he has a wider range of color than a lot of other pop record producers have. It just invites the dream of expanding it to an orchestral sound. For years people had been suggesting this,” he said.

Still, the societal issues involved must be acknowledged, Peters said. “I completely understand that this is a difficult, difficult conversation, and believe me, we’ve been all over the map in thinking it through. But we just felt like there’s an opportunity here to use the energy that surrounds this, the frustration and revulsion and betrayal that many people feel, as a chance to get people to focus on solutions and [child abuse] prevention,” he said.

The nonprofit organizations involved in the program will have booths in the Tobin Center lobby before and after the Thriller Live! performance, and information on their work will be included in the YOSA concert programs, available for free to all attendees. Tickets for the performance are available here.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...