REVIEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops open summer season at the Aboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops opened their 2017 summer season at the Los Angeles County Arboretum Saturday night with one of those programs that has become “traditional” for Feinstein since he became the Pops’ Principal Conductor in 2012 and conducted his first concert a year later.

A large, nearly sellout audience — which included the usual contingent of joyous peacocks — saw Feinstein as conductor, pianist, soloist, duet singer, interviewer and, of course, raconteur. He does most of these things in many concerts, just not all of them at one time, usually. No circus bandleader could have handled the myriad duties with the aplomb of the irrepressible Feinstein.

He got assistance from four soloists (one of whom was a surprise), the Pops’ Resident Conductor Larry Blank (who also arranged three of the evening’s numbers), eight of the Donald Brinegar Singers, and several orchestra members who excelled in their solo turns.

The concert was entitled “Broadway: The Golden Age,” although Feinstein noted in his opening remarks that what constitutes the “Golden Age” differs in large part based on the listener’s age (for some people, Phantom of the Opera equates to ancient history). Nevertheless, the evening featured music covering four decades and, as is often the case, Feinstein unearthed a work that hasn’t been performed in public: Herbert Spencer’s arrangement of The Sound of Music.

From a performance point of view (aside from Feinstein), the evening’s highlight was vocalist Storm Large, who delivered passionate, sultry performances of As Long as He Needs Me and Maybe This time, joined with Feinstein for Come Rain or Come Shine, and did a hilarious send up of Hopelessly Devoted to You.

Feinstein introduced a young singer, Alex Getlin, who he discovered during parties at Judge Judy’s house when she was age 8. Now age 23 and a recent grad from Northwestern University, Getlin sang I’m the Greatest Star from Funny Girl with polished gusto.

After intermission, Joel Grey showed that even at age 85 he can still create magic in a medley from the musical Cabaret, for which he won an Academy Award and Tony Award in his role as the show’s Master of Ceremonies.

The evening’s surprise was the appearance of Liza Minnelli, who had been listed in the preconcert publicity as the evening’s honoree. After a video montage of some of her greatest musical moments, Minnelli came onstage and it appeared as if she would, indeed, simply be interviewed by Feinstein about her legendary career. Instead, she joined Feinstein for a couple of songs, including a performance of Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano, in which she flashed glimpses of her magnetic stage personality.

• The Pops is co-sponsoring a performance by country-music star LeAnn Rimes on July 8 at The Arboretum. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased through the Pops’ Web site HERE.
• The next concert in the Pops’ season is July 15 when four of the original cast members of the Broadway’s Jersey Boys, who call themselves The Midtown Men, will present songs from that show along with music by the Beach Boys, Beatles and others. Resident Conductor Larry Blank will lead the orchestra. Information:

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Michael Feinstein reprises “Sinatra Project” at L.A. Arboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

FesinsteinMichael Feinstein performing the music of Frank Sinatra would seem to be a perfect fit. After all, Feinstein has made a career of curating, promoting and performing “The Great American Songbook” and no one belongs in that genre more than “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

For the second consecutive year it was a perfect fit as Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops, led by its resident conductor, Larry Blank, presented “The Sinatra Project, Vol. 2” last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

For the second consecutive year it also was boffo box office as a sold-out audience packed the tables and sprawled on the The Giant Lawn of the Arcadia facility.

As usual, Feinstein, the orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, mixed Sinatra favorites with pieces that had been unperformed for decades — or at all. Feinstein provided his typically erudite commentary, which was compact enough that the entire program clocked in at slightly more than just two hours, even allowing for CEO Laura Unger’s gushing thanks to the evening’s sponsors and a lugubrious rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, led by Concertmaster Aimee Kreston.

One thread to the evening was Feinstein’s use of arrangers indelibly linked to Sinatra, including Nelson Riddle and Ruby Bloom. Blank also offered a couple of his arrangements and led the Pops as it played well both as an orchestra and a ’30s-style jazz band.

As is typical of Feinstein programs, he offered a couple of “discoveries”: Blank’s arrangement of Orange, and a complete performance of Three Coins in the Fountain (Sinatra recorded the title song for the 1954 movie but what was used wasn’t the complete version that Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne created).

Throughout the evening Feinstein played every role but conductor: singing some of the songs (such as Something’s to Give) accompanied by the orchestra, some (e.g., I’ve Got a Crush on You) from the piano, and Birth of the Blues, where Feinstein offered a spiffy piano solo.

Perhaps the most poignant piece was If I Loved You, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s movie Carousel. Feinstein preceded this by noting the familiar story about why Sinatra elected not to appear as Billy Bigelow in the movie — he didn’t want to have to record each scene twice, once in standard format and the other in widescreen, which was necessary in those days.

However, Feinstein offered a different version, courtesy of Shirley Jones (the female star), who said Sinatra was afraid that his wife, Ava Gardner, would have an affair with Humphrey Bogart while they were overseas making a movie, so Sinatra withdrew to join her. It was a typical Feinstein historical note.

The evening concluded with a medley of Sinatra songs, a reprise from the conclusion of last year’s Sinatra Project. If there is to be a Volume 3 it won’t be next year. Instead, Feinstein is slated to sing an evening of Swing Music on July 29 as the third concert in the 2017 summer season.

This year’s season continues on August 20 with Feinstein conducting the Pops in music by Cole Porter (INFO) and concludes on September 10 with an evening of music from Warner Bros (INFO).

For next season, the pattern from Feinstein’s first seasons seems to be well entrenched. 2017 will open with Feinstein conducting the Pops in Broadway: the Golden Age on June 17 and continues with music from Jersey Boys and Beyond on July 15, with Blank leading the Pops and four members of the Broadway musical. After Feinstein Sings Swing on July 29 will come Gershwin and Friends on August 19 and Universal Studios Favorites on September 9, both with Feinstein conducting.

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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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.

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


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.

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.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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