Post image for Los Angeles Music Review: MICHAEL FEINSTEIN SINGS GERSHWIN (Pasadena POPS)

by Tony Frankel on July 24, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Charismatic, appealing, boyish, excited, and eager to please, Michael Feinstein appeared before a proliferation of people (and a pulchritude of peacocks) to gush out Gershwin songs at the L.A. Arboretum last Saturday. This consummate showman’s one-man tunefest began with a 1950’s educational-style film on two huge LED video screens on either side of the outdoor stage. The introduction chronicled Feinstein’s early life and how he got to be an archivist and friend of lyricist Ira Gershwin. This advantageous alliance cemented his love for standards; since then, the 57-year-old raconteur (who performs with the energy of the 20-year-old who worked with George’s brother for six years) has seemingly singlehandedly been preserving the Great American Songbook for future generations.

Michael Feinstein Sings Gershwin (with the Pasadena Pops).

Throughout the program (over 24 songs including medleys), our host spewed out personal stories, dates, facts, and figures like a breathing Wikipedia, reminding us that the Gershwins’ work is “the lifeblood of what is best about our culture.” He also offered bridges and verses that are not normally sung in myriads of recordings; he even sang “I’ve Got a Crush on You” in an up-tempo form as originally intended for the 1928 Broadway production of Treasure Girl.

Michael Feinstein Sings Gershwin with the Pasadena Pops

All of this was presented in an off-the-cuff, friendly, intimate style as if this was a living room salon (admittedly a ginormous living room with thousands of guests). Also refreshingly humorous and a jokester, Feinstein would toss off some trivia followed by a wry quip: “Ira and his wife Leonore were married for over 50 years.” Shrugging his shoulders, he added, “Not happily.” And not to be outdone by the screeching peacocks, Feinstein adroitly imitated the braying birds.

Pasadena Pops' Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein - POSTERFeinstein drew capacity crowds for his first year as Principal Pops Conductor (his renewed contract has him remaining in that role through 2016), but here the baton went to Larry Blank, who led the Pasadena Symphony. Thus, the affable crooner showcased his exquisite vocal phrasing and classy piano technique. Yet some of the most magical moments had Feinstein sans orchestra: His highly inventive self-accompaniment during “Embraceable You” included 14 melodies from other Gershwin tunes (such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Fascinating Rhythm”); a surprisingly emotional and theatrical flair was at hand during “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?”; and a solo encore medley including “Summertime” and “Our Love is Here to Stay” was glorious. With or without orchestra, whether utilizing Liberace-style pyrotechnics or graceful piano bar arpeggios, Feinstein’s keyboard craft was always impressive. (When Mr. Effervescent rose from the piano, it was a red-hot Sam Kriger who took over on the ivories.)

Michael Feinstein Sings Gershwin (with the Pasadena Pops)

Effective arrangers included Joe Glover (“Swanee,” which simulated classic MGM scores); Larry Blank (a scorching “Nice Work if You Can Get It”); Doug Walter (“Who Cares” and two others were meaty, sweet, and hot—because strings never dominated, Walters avoided a mushy sound); and George Bassman (a snazzy take on George’s 1917 novelty rag, “Rialto Ripples”). John Oddo’s arrangements were the least successful in their ersatz Nelson Riddle flavor; his Fred Astaire medley was brash and fancy enough with a wonderful flow, but the other three sounded like Jazz Age Muzak.

Michael Feinstein Sings Gershwin with the Pasadena Pops.

Feinstein confided that explaining George Gershwin’s brilliance is impossible. Certainly, he was a product of his time—when abounding American ingenuity was a melting pot of innovation—but it’s best to say, “He was a product of God.”  This concert easily captured the totality of Gershwin’s genius.

photos by Kay E. Kochenderfer

Michael Feinstein SINGS Gershwin
Pasadena POPS
L.A. County Arboretum, 301 N Baldwin Ave. in Arcadia
played on July 19, 2014
for future events, call 626.793.7172 or visit www.PasadenaSymphony-Pops.org

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