Carly Garza & Jaime Ramirez perform on stage with YOSA.
Visuals accompany Carly Garza & Jaime Ramirez, with backing vocals by Andrea "Vocab" Sanderson and Alyson Alonzo, as they perform with the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Thriller Live! the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (YOSA)’s latest edition of its Classic Albums Live! series, began with a rousing version of – wait for it – English composer Malcom Arnold’s Scottish Dance No. 1. This was no attempt to divert attention away from troubles surrounding pop star Michael Jackson’s legacy but merely a way to feature the orchestra and get the audience fired up, said YOSA Music Director and Conductor Troy Peters.

It might have been an apt choice, from a longer-term perspective, as the knighted Sir Malcolm is considered one of the major composers of the 20th century and Jackson has been dubbed the “King of Pop.” However, with the wide release of Leaving Neverland, detailing allegations that Jackson sexually abused two minors featured in the HBO documentary, his status is in question.

“I think this is one of the most complex questions of our time,” Peters said by phone days before the concert. “Consequential, important artists have turned out to be profoundly flawed people who have done reprehensible things.”

Troy Peters, YOSA Music Director, is visible as MC^2 & The S.O.U.L. performs on stage with YOSA.
Troy Peters, YOSA music director, is visible as MC² & The S.O.U.L. performs onstage with the student musicians. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Though YOSA wrestled with the question of whether to continue with the concert in the shadow of the recently aired allegations of predatory behavior against children, ultimately the student musicians, staff, and supporters decided to go ahead. The key, all agreed, was to turn the concert into an opportunity to help bring awareness to area nonprofit agencies involved in supporting child victims of sexual and emotional abuse, and adult survivors.

A brief video opened the show, acknowledging the issues of child abuse overshadowing the concert. Judge Peter Sakai of the Bexar County 225th District Court – which he noted is also known as “the children’s court” – drew attention to the enormity of the problem. Sakai said “alarming” statistics in the state of Texas show that 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 6 boys, will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and he urged concertgoers to stop at tables set up in the lobby by the nonprofit agencies involved in the program.

Peters then took the conductor’s podium and began the concert. Classic Albums Live! concerts feature an entire album’s worth of songs, in order, with featured guest artists to complement the youth orchestra. Forty-eight San Antonio singers and musicians gave voice to Jackson’s memorable melodies, from MC2 & The S.O.U.L.’s hip-hop treatment of concert opener Wanna Be Startin’ Something to Beat It, sung by Audrey Gaytan, backed by members of Recreating Eden.

That song earned a do-over after it became apparent that the group’s guitars were inaudible the first time through. The second time, Cameron Stahl and Frankie Cortinas were able to flash their hammer-on prowess, together recreating the signature Eddie Van Halen solo that has propelled aspiring guitar gods everywhere to study the riffs note-by-note.

Recreating Eden’s regular singer Andrew Douglas then took the stage dressed in an elaborate floral-patterned suit, for a transcendent version of Billie Jean sung electrically in Jackson’s high tenor register.

Toes could be seen tapping up and down the rows of audience members engaged with the night’s program, and some even danced in the box seats. Despite Jackson’s reputational damage, his song titles alone still evoke the rhythmic bass lines and indelible, highly orchestrated pop hooks that have propelled music lovers to dance floors for generations. But unfortunate and bitterly ironic associations are now possible, though producer and songwriter Quincy Jones, who with James Ingram wrote P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), might have been entirely unaware of impending accusations that Jackson was a practicing pedophile.

Mr. Pidge performed the hit, backed by YOSA. The six-member ensemble was dressed in elaborate, glittered, and brightly-colored finery, including Jackson’s famous one-hand silver sequined glove. Their bright, energetic rendition of P.Y.T. focused attention on the music and more pleasant memories of Jackson’s early years.

Candice Inman, a teacher at Kennedy High School, was spotted collecting literature from the ChildSafe table after the show. Agencies and literature present for the performance included ChildSafe and Roy Maas Youth Alternatives, both serving abused and neglected youth, and San Antonio Clubhouse, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) San Antonio, and the Alamo Area Teen Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Asked about the complexity of kids performing Jacksons’ music, Inman said, “I think kids these days are aware of their surroundings. They’re very perceptive of what’s going on in the media and social media, so I think bringing it to light – not skimming over the fact that there is the underlying issue of abuse – they look beyond that. They’re still aware, but they keep it in perspective. They know it’s music.”

Mark Stoeltje, executive director of SA Clubhouse, said he struggled with the decision to take part. “I personally went back and forth about it, but I think ultimately it’s a good thing. Using this venue and this large audience here, 1,300 people tonight, just to bring awareness to child abuse” would help the cause of his agency and others focused on abuse prevention and recovery, he said.

The pain on Stoeltje’s face was visible when he summed up the evening. “Just speaking for me personally, [Jackson] was obviously a great musician, a great songwriter, a great performer. He was also probably a pedophile. I guess I can separate the two. I appreciate his music.”

The orchestra and guest performers received a standing ovation from the audience, which filtered into the night speaking of the concert’s highlights.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...