AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Michael Feinstein sings Gershwin with Pasadena Pops

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
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Pasadena Pops With Michael Feinstein
Saturday, July 19 • 7:30 p.m. (Gates open 5:30 p.m.)
Los Angeles County Arboretum; 301 North Baldwin Ave., Arcadia
Tickets: $20-$115
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Feinstein-singing

Michael Feinstein will sing songs of the Gershwins — an integral part of “The Great American Songbook” — with the Pasadena Pops on Saturday, July 19, at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
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When Michael Feinstein steps onto the stage Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, he will be in an unfamiliar role, at least for Pasadena Pops concerts. Rather than appearing as Principal Conductor (the orchestra’s Resident Conductor, Larry Blank, will be waving his baton, instead) Feinstein will spend the evening crooning music by George and Ira Gershwin, songs that are dear to his heart and an integral part of “The Great American Songbook” (LINK), a project on which Feinstein has focused his career and life for more than 20 years.

“I fell in love with the Gershwins’ music at a very early age,” said Feinstein in an interview recently, “and then had the opportunity of knowing and working with Ira Gershwin for six years. He taught me much of what I know about this music and how to perform it. This program will be an affectionate tribute to their collaboration, filled with anecdotes that are often humorous and illuminating.”

Feinstein has created some new arrangements for this concert; he will also include classic sets. “For example,” says Feinstein, “I will do one piece with lyrics by Ira and music by another composer, called Tchaikovsky. It was introduced by Danny Kaye and I perform it with Danny’s original orchestration. There will be a medley of songs that George put together for Fred Astaire that I have arranged. I perform different ‘chestnuts’ in different ways, with different styles. So this is a fresh look at this iconic music.”

Music of the Gershwins is a quintessential example of “The Great American Songbook,” believes Feinstein. ‘This is a body of work that began in the earlier part of the 20th century, crystalizing in the 1920s and continues today,” he explains. “It contains music and lyrics that transcend their time — they have a timeless quality that appeals to contemporary audiences.”

Feinstein isn’t the only person to work with this concept; three years ago Thomas Hampson traveled throughout the United State States and Europe performing recitals of music from this collection and as long ago as the 1950s Ella Fitzgerald was recording music by Rodgers and Hart that she termed a “song book.”

Nonetheless, “The Great American Songbook” is Feinstein’s passion. “There are a few songs from the early 1900s that survive — Stephen Foster and Victor Herbert, for example,” says Feinstein, “but the creations that began in the 1920s had a certain level of sophistication in the words, a clever turn of phrase, that not only has appeal today but continues to speak to the human condition. It is time that determines what lasts, not someone saying, ‘This is part of The Great American Songbook.”

Mining that collection produces consistently distinctive concerts for the Pasadena Pops (Feinstein is in his second year as the ensemble’s principal conductor). “Pasadena is an extension of my love for The Great American Songbook,” says Feinstein, “but the concerts a very different experience because it’s a symphony orchestra playing these arrangements. Often ‘pops’ concerts are dumbed-down arrangements of songs that are, for want of a better word, ‘schlocky,’ kind of generic and boring. Our programs are not elevator music; this is music of true harmonic substance, played by a great orchestra.

“Moreover,” he continues, “this is often ‘new music’ for the musicians. ‘Pops’ orchestras traditionally play certain pieces of music but there’s very little that the Pasadena Pops Orchestra is accustomed to in our concerts. That keeps things fresh. Things like Saturday’s Gershwin concert are fun for me and for the musicians, as well. I want to create programs that I would enjoy attending.”

For more on Michael Feinstein on “The Great American Songbook,” click HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

MEMOIR: Michael Feinstein — building and preserving “The Great American Songbook”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
home
Michael Feinstein will sing songs of the Gershwins — an integral part of “The Great American Songbook” — with the Pasadena Pops on Saturday, July 19, at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. LINK
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When I first heard the term “The Great American Songbook,” I thought it was actually a book — I even went online to see whether I could purchase it. If I had, I would have needed to be a loose-leaf notebook, because “TGAS” is, in reality, a living, expanding organism, as one of its greatest exponents, Michael Feinstein explains.

”The Great American Songbook is a body of work that began in the earlier part of the 20th century, crystalizing in the 1920s and continues today,” Feinstein explains. “It contains music and lyrics that transcend their time — they have a timeless quality that appeals to contemporary audiences.”

One could, of course, make the same claim for classical music. “We’re still listening to the music of Schubert and Brahms because it still has value or resonance today,” says Feinstein. “It’s the same things with these songs: this is popular music that has turned into standards by still being performed: people continue to want to hear them.”

By Feinstein’s definition, “The Great American Songbook” begins with music from the 1920s. “There are a few songs from the early 1900s that survive — Stephen Foster and Victor Herbert, for example,” continues Feinstein, “but the creations that began in the 1920s had a certain level of sophistication in the words, a clever turn of phrase, that not only has appeal today but continues to speak to the human condition. It is time that determines what lasts, not someone saying, ‘This is part of The Great American Songbook.’”

“No one knows exactly when the term The Great American Songbook was first used,” believes Feinstein. “Ella Fitzgerald, starting in the 1950s, recorded what she called the Rodgers and Hart song book; I don’t know if anyone used the term prior to those recordings. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that we’ve been using the phrase The Great American Songbook.”

Feinstein’s devotion to what would become TGAS began in the 1970s when he was introduced to Ira Gershwin, who hired him to catalogue his extensive collection of phonograph records. “I fell in love with the Gershwins’ music at a very early age,” recalls Feinstein, “and then had the opportunity of knowing and working with Ira Gershwin for six years.”

Later he began cataloguing and preserving the unpublished sheet music and rare recordings in Gershwin’s home, thus securing the legacy of not just Ira but also that of his composer brother George Gershwin, who had died four decades earlier. “He [Ira] taught me much of what I know about this music and how to perform it.”

That preservation work continues to this day. “I have office space where I have thousands and thousands of pounds of sheet music,” says Feinstein who has lived in a 1920s-era castle-like house since 1998 (“it’s a peaceful retreat, which is necessary for balance in my life”). Feinstein has a full-time archivist working in Hollywood. Some of the material can be scanned but not all. “Some are not readable enough to be digitized,” explains Feinstein.

“There are songs being written today that have the potential of becoming part of the Great American Songbook,” believes Feinstein. “The last great wave of songwriters was in the 1970s: Carole King, Billy Joel, Elton John, Carly Simon. Their songs are now being recognized as part of The Great American Songbook.

“One of the problems with songs written today is that they are often identified indelibly an individual performer. One example is Pharrell Williams’ song, Happy. Other people can sing it but it’s really identified with him. So I don’t know what has been written in the last 20 years that will last, aside from the specific recordings. And maybe that’s how they will last because technology is such that people will go back to that specific recording.”

Feinstein cites one of many examples. “A song like Skyfall, by Adele: It won an Oscar but that’s a terrible song. It’s three chords and succeeds because of the power of her interpretation. She’s a powerful and talented performer but not’s delude ourselves: it’s not a great song and outside of her performance I doubt very much if that song will last.”

One of the things that make a song last is that it’s been interpreted by many people in many different ways. “Any given Gershwin song can have hundreds of interpretations,” says Feinstein. I Got Rhythm was introduced by Ethel Merman in 1930 but it is the different types of interpretations over the years that has kept it alive.”

Feinstein’s work in TGAS takes many forms. In 2007, he founded the “Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative,” dedicated to celebrating the art form and preserving it through educational programs, Master Classes, and the annual High School Vocal Academy and Competition, which awards scholarships and prizes to students across the country.

He serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, an organization dedicated to ensuring the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America’s sound recording heritage.

Feinstein’s work as Principal Conductor of the Pasadena Pops have open up new horizons. “This was an opportunity to create music in a different way and it explained why I had been collecting orchestrations these many years,” explains Feinstein. “I would never had the opportunity to sing a Peggy Lee tune to an orchestration because it’s in a different key for a different singer, but when I would come across these things I would preserve them and collect them. Now I realize why I’ve been preserving and collecting orchestrations all these years.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Tovey conducts Bernstein, Gershwin at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic: Bernstein and Gershwin
Branwell Tovey, pianist and conductor; Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocalist
Thursday, July 10 • Hollywood Bowl
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Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin, Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic — four names inextricably linked with Hollywood Bowl — combined for an occasionally quirky but ultimately satisfying concert last night at the Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. The pairing was certainly popular: 11,875 people showed up, 4,155 more than attended Tuesday night’s classical-season opener of this, the 93rd season at the famed outdoor venue.

The Phil apparently can’t decide how to describe its relationship with Tovey, the British-born composer-conductor-pianist who turns 61 today (which also happens to be the 77th anniversary of Gershwin’s untimely death). Although none of the preconcert media releases list any local title for Tovey (since 2000 he has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony), the printed program continues to list him as Principal Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. Whatever; he’s a welcome presence. With his conducting skills and erudite comedy that last night played to and off of the audience, various orchestra members and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tovey remains the pinnacle of outdoor maestros both for his musical and raconteur skills.

Last night he showed off another of his many facets by doubling as pianist and conductor in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Most people who attempt this dual role remove the piano lid and shove the piano into the middle of the orchestra (over the conductor’s podium, in effect). Tovey, instead, placed the piano in its usual concert position with the lid raised to its full extension, which meant that a goodly number of players couldn’t see Tovey while he was playing.

Tovey solved this problem (sort of) by beginning the introduction — with Michele Zukovsky’s slinky, sumptuous clarinet solo — on the podium and then sitting down to play. The orchestra had a tendency to bog down a bit until Tovey would get off the bench and whip the tempo back to what he considered acceptable. It was all a bit disconcerting. Considering that Tovey doesn’t make his living as a pianist, he was remarkably dexterous in the solo portions, although the performance certainly wasn’t note-perfect. The audience had a good time; they gave Tovey and the orchestra a thunderous ovation at the end.

Prior to Rhapsody in Blue, Tovey and Co. offered a fiery rendition of Bernstein’s Candide Overture and four pieces from the 1944 musical On the Town. The three-movement orchestral suite from the musical was notable for, among other things, melancholy solos by James Wilt on trumpet and Carolyn Hove on English horn in the second movement and the car-horn effect in the first movement, appropriate since Gershwin’s An American in Paris was the concert finale.

Following the suite, Alysha Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson raced onstage to perform the saucy I Can Cook, Too as a plug for a Broadway revival this fall at New York City’s Lyric Theatre. Of a review of the 2013 production in Vermont, New York Times critic Ben Brantlee wrote: “John Rando’s production of On The Town … is one of those rare revivals that remind us what a hit show from long was originally all about. The joy of Mr. Rando’s production is in its air of erotic effortlessness.” It would be hard to term last night’s “tease” as “effortless” but “erotic” it certainly was; this number (for which Bernstein wrote the lyrics) must have ruffled more than a few feathers in 1944.

After intermission, Bridgewater joined Tovey (at the piano) and the orchestra for arrangements of four Gershwin songs that Tovey orchestrated in 2000. Whether she genuinely had a brain cramp that left her totally clueless as how to begin A Foggy Day in London Town or was grinding through a grossly overdone shtick between her and Tovey, Bridgewater’s breathy renditions of Foggy Day, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and Fascinating Rhythm gave little, if any, sense of Gershwin’s genius in this genre.

There’s no programming genius required to conclude this kind of concert with An American in Paris, but Tovey’s humorous introduction (one wonders how a felt hat draped over a trumpet bell really affects the sound) led to a solid, forthright performance of this Bowl and L.A. Phil staple, which sent everyone home happy.

Bernstein, Gershwin, Tovey and the L.A. Phil under a full moon and basking in delightfully cool evening temperatures — this is why people keep coming back year after year.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The brightest sign of the $2.8 million renovations to the Bowl this year this is the addition of new Alaskan cedar benches, which replaced ones that had been in use since 1982. “Over time,” writes Ross Guiney, LA County Department of Parks and Recreation Director, “the wood will naturally weather in the beautiful silvery-gray color with which Bowl-goers are familiar.”
• C+ to the camera operators, who weren’t always on cue with which orchestra player was being featured in a solo lick. On the other hand, the color quality was superb and the sound system has become first-rate.
• On Tuesday, conductor James Gaffigan leads the Phil in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Behzod Abduraimov, who is making both his Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl debuts, as soloist in the concert. They replace Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yefim Bronfman, who were originally scheduled to perform. Salonen, former LA Phil music director and now conductor laureate, cancelled “due to unforeseen personal reasons,” says the Phil announcement, while Bronfman is bowing out “due to the unavoidable scheduling of a minor medical procedure.” (LINK)
• Next Thursday, Salonen will return to the Bowl for the first time since 2009, conducting first piano concertos and first symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Yuja Wang will be the piano soloist in both concertos; joining her for the Shostakovich will be LAPO Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: A big opening classical-music month for Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Although classical concerts fill only about a third of the increasingly busy Hollywood Bowl season, for us old codgers summer at the Bowl doesn’t really begin until the classical season opens July 8 with Tuesday and Thursday night concerts continuing until Sept. 11.

There’s an unusually interesting mix of programs and conductors in this, the 93rd season at the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. Any season where we can see Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen in consecutive weeks rates as noteworthy.

Bramwell Tovey, who for several years held the title of Principal Conductor at the Bowl but now is just a frequent albeit welcome guest, leads the July 8 program, which is definitely not your typical classical-season opener. Instead it’s a delightful hodge-podge featuring violinists Joshua Bell and Phillippe Quint, the ensemble Time for Three, vocalist Frankie Moreno and actress Glenn Close, performing music ranging from Franz Waxman to Edgar Meyer and Igor Stravinsky (the 1919 Firebird Suite).

Tovey will be both conductor and pianist on July 10 in music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, including Rhapsody in Blue. Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater will sing Gershwin songs during the concert.

Things shift into hard-core classical programming after that. In the second week Salonen — the Phil’s former music director and now conductor laureate — makes rare Bowl appearances. The July 15 program pairs a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto; one of Salonen’s favorite collaborators, Yefim Bronfman, will be soloist.

The July 17 program is subtitled “Russian First” with good reason. It pairs the first symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich with both composers’ first piano concertos. One of our era’s most exciting pianists, Yuja Wang, will return to the Bowl as soloist in the concertos and LAPO Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten will do the honors in the Shostakovich (indeed, hearing Yang and Hooten in the Shostakovich should be worth the price admission by itself).

LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel takes the Bowl podium for the next two weeks. The July 22 and 24 programs are duplicate performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and his rarely performed Triple Concerto, featuring Renaud Capuçon, violin, Gautier Capuçon, cello and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano.

The duplication gives the Phil extra time to rehearse for what has become the now-annual opera night, which this year features the traditional pairing of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana on July 27.

Dudamel and the Phil continue the summer’s crossover programming on July 29 with Marquez’s Danzóns Nos. 4 and 8 and Kauderer’s Symphonic Tangos joined by Latin-jazz songs of from Rubén Blades.

The final July concert will conclude this summer’s edition of Dudamel’s “Americas and Americans” theme as the orchestra screens film clips accompanied by music from a number of composers including Gustavo Santaolalla (e.g., The Motorcycle Diaries) and concluding with a suite from Dudamel’s score to Libertador, a Simón Bolivár biopic that is scheduled to open in the U.S. Aug. 22.

That, my friends, counts as quite a month of music making!

INFORMATION: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.