Los Angeles Music Review: MICHAEL FEINSTEIN’S SONGBOOK (Pasadena Pops in Arcadia)

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by Tony Frankel on June 18, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

A FEINSTEIN FIRST

The untimely passing of Marvin Hamlisch was a blow to the entertainment industry, but no more keenly felt than at the Pasadena Pops where he was the principal conductor. Who could possibly replace Hamlisch, the musician extraordinaire and jovial raconteur who had vast knowledge of the American Songbook and an array of Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Pasadena POPS and Michael Feinstein.artists at his behest? The answer seems ridiculously obvious once it was announced that Michael Feinstein, who has singlehandedly reinvigorated the American Songbook for the 21st century, would be taking the reins.

Not only does Feinstein have access to a vast array of musical compositions, but he is also an accomplished singer and pianist. His knowledge of all things Popular Music is equally an asset, as he can easily take the audience on an anecdotal, explanatory, behind-the-scenes journey of a song’s origin. There was just one teeny-tiny, possibly pesky detail: For all of his 200+ performing dates a year, Feinstein had never conducted an orchestra.

His debut at Pasadena Pops’ opening concert, Michael Feinstein’s Songbook, may have displayed leadership which could at times be mechanical (I wondered a few times if his nerves got the better of him), his enthusiastic spirit, adventurous selections, delightful off-the-cuff remarks, and can-do musicianship proved that he is most definitely the man for the job. He also had 78 (if I counted right) professional musicians at the ready. His name brought in throngs of well-wishers to Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Pasadena POPS and Michael Feinstein.the outdoor venue at the L.A. Arboretum, now all he needs is a little more muscle in his conducting, fewer arrangements which veer towards Muzak, more distinctive guest artists, and the Pops may become even more popular than it already is.

Leading off with “An American in Paris Overture” (which was actually a Gershwin’s Greatest Hits arranged by Larry Blank and Conrad Salinger), the boyish 57-year-old conductor turned to us and said, “All those years of playing Bar Mitzvahs finally paid off.”

What really paid off were Feinstein’s selections, far more rewarding when they resided in unfamiliar territory. The kid from Columbus, Ohio has fraternized with the greats of American music and really knows his stuff. I relished every insight he imparted, such as the background info on Ferde Grofé’s March for Americans. Commissioned by Meredith (The Music Man) Willson in 1941 for his Concert Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Pasadena POPS and Michael Feinstein.Orchestra, this chirpy piece resides somewhere between Sousa and a Disney Silly Symphony, and it is astonishing is that it has been unheard since 1941 (although my sources tell me that there was a recording that same year and released on a 12″ Decca 78).

Leroy Anderson wrote orchestral miniatures for Fiedler’s Boston Pops, and we were treated to his rarely heard “Serenata” (1947), a romantic beguine-flavored piece which was a perfect companion to our view of lush foliage and the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. A 1949 recording of the Boston Pops’ version (which had Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” on the flip side) can be heard here, but Maestro Fiedler has some serious competition from Feinstein.

Artists from the orchestra were given a chance to show off. The pleasant Peter Knight arrangement of Benny Goodman tunes wasn’t very adventurous, but clarinetist Don Shelton trotted out some mean riffs. Johnny Mandel’s lush but occasionally syrupy adaptation of his own film underscoring for Emily allowed for strong and tender strains from Concertmaster Aimee Kreston. Henry Mancini’s beautiful and filmic arrangement of Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” (used in Ken Burns’ Civil War) was made heartrending by the warmth of guest pianist Bryan Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Pasadena POPS and Michael Feinstein.Pezzone. Sadly, the unfortunate sound design – which vacillated between tinny and distorted –detracted from the orchestral performances at times.

The singers’ microphones, however, worked fine. The guest artists included Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, who offered a dashing, fun and adorable version of Noel Coward’s “Mrs. Worthington.” At times, he seemed to be channeling Alice Ghostly (that’s a good thing). Country singer/songwriter Lari White tried her hand at Duke Ellington’s rarely heard “Jump for Joy,” Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and two songs from Yentl, but the results were decidedly mixed. She did not show herself to be a distinctive singer and offered little shading or nuance – but what a set of pipes. The affable Cheyenne Jackson (Broadway’s Xanadu and TV’s Glee), whom Feinstein performed with at Carnegie Hall, brought some unique phrasing to Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” While no one can deny that this chatty cat is as beguiling as the day is long, I wish he leaned more towards elegance and less towards American Idol.

Highlights included a world premiere orchestral rendering of Lionel Newman’s “Again,” a song which is based on his underscore from Road House (1948). This gorgeous piece arrived in the second act as Feinstein self-assuredly came into his own, and the next number proved that he has what it takes to lead the Pops. J. P. Johnson introduced the stride piano playing method made popular by Fats Waller, and he wrote popular ditties such as “Charleston” (1923), but his symphonic pieces were rarely performed. Also arranged by Johnson, Victory Stride (1944) is a snazzy, Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Pasadena POPS and Michael Feinstein.alive, jumpin’ hot composition with smart, unique orchestrations. Feinstein wasn’t kidding when he warned us beforehand to “fasten your seat belts” for this West Coast Premiere in a “California-centric” night.

Feinstein closed with a solo at the piano, a lovely rendition of “Memories,” which was a fitting tribute to Hamlisch. Ironically, the last piece was supposed to be John Williams’ “Raider’s March,” but it was omitted, I assume, for time (Mr. Jackson did chat a lot). How fitting it would be if Feinstein used this rousing film theme to open his next concert: This one ended with a humble tribute, the next begins with a triumphant march. I believe Feinstein will be ready.

production photos by Ivan Schustak

Pasadena POPS: Michael Feinstein’s Songbook
Michael Feinstein, Conductor
played June 1, 2013
Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden
301 N. Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia
for info and tickets to future events, call (626) 793-7172
or visit http://www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org/

UPCOMING CONCERTS:

Pasadena POPS: Bernadette Peter in Concert
June 29, 2013
Gates open at 5:30pm for picnicking | Concert begins at 7:30pm
Bernadette Peters, Guest Artist
Larry Blank, Conductor

Pasadena POPS: Michael Feinstein’s MGM Movie Classics
July 13, 2013
Gates open at 5:30pm for picnicking | Concert begins at 7:30pm
Michael Feinstein, Conductor
Ron Raines, Guest Artist
Christine Ebersole, Guest Artist

Pasadena POPS: Classical Mystery Tour: Music of The Beatles
August 10, 2013
Gates open at 5:30pm for picnicking | Concert begins at 7:30pm
Jim Owen | Tony Kishman | David John | Joe Bologna, Classical Mystery Tour
Martin Herman, conductor

Pasadena POPS: Michael Feinstein – The Gershwins and Me
September 7, 2013
Gates open at 5:30pm for picnicking | Concert begins at 7:30pm
Michael Feinstein, Conductor
Catherine Russell, Guest Artist
Chuck Cooper, Guest Artist

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