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
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

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.”

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Broadway with a twist from Pasadena Pops

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

What if an orchestra presented a summertime Broadway-themed concert and Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t show up? That’s what the Pasadena Pops almost did last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Of the nearly three-dozen songs on the program, only one was by the iconic duo. Instead, the Pops spotlighted four beautiful and talented Broadway female vocalists and one hunky (and talented) male. Along with delivering a first-rate program, they emphatically demonstrated that there’s been a lot of life on The Great White Way since R&H left the scene more than half a century ago.

The Pops’ resident conductor, Larry Blank, presided over a well-paced program and the orchestra provided stylish accompaniment throughout. The ensemble also got its moments in the spotlight with renditions of Song on the Sand from La Cage Aux Folles and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture.

However, the spotlight was on the vocalists: Susan Egan, Valeri Perri, Christina Saffran, Lisa Vroman and David Burnham.

There were several touching moments and a surprise during the evening. Egan, Perri and Saffran (with some well-time peacocks counterpoint) offered a poignant rendition of At the Ballet from A Chorus Line by the Pops’ late principal conductor, Marvin Hamlisch. Later in the second half, Vroman delivered an operatic performance of If I Loved You from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, just two days after Richard’s daughter, Mary, died at the age of 83. In dedicating the performance to Mary Rodgers, Blank noted that she was involved in the R&H Foundation, which owns and licensed much of the music on the program.

The surprise was Egan’s powerful rendition of the world premiere of Every Time We Touch from an unproduced musical by Richard Kagan and Michael Jay. Kagan had been friends with Hamlisch for 48 years and was with him when Hamlisch died suddenly on August 6, 2012 at the age of 68.

As Blank related, Kagan had harbored thoughts of becoming a composer but after he heard Hamlisch play, Kagan recalls, “it changed my life. I was overwhelmed by his talent. I knew for me it was time to go into the insurance business.” For the next four decades, Kagan ran a successful life insurance business in L.A. but apparently he has had second thoughts about the musical theatre.

Burnham and Vroman provided one of the evening’s highlights with their heartfelt rendition of All I Ask of You from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Perri brought great emotion to Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita, while Saffran displayed a gorgeous voice in I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.

Although Judy Garland didn’t have a Broadway stage career, she figured prominently in the evening’s proceedings. Perri sang an arrangement written for Garland of Almost Like Being in Love from Brigadoon, while later Egan brought her unique touch to a medley of Garland songs from the movies, concluding with (what else?) Over the Rainbow.

• Now in its third season at the Arboretum, the Pops continues to settle in nicely. The video screens on either side of the stage seem to have much sharper definition this year and the camera work was, for the most part, quite satisfactory. The only oddity was that Perri’s purple gown showed up bright blue on the video, although the other ladies’ gowns seemed to translate well on screen.
• One major problem from previous years, a lack of lighting on the pathway leading to the south exit after the concert, has been rectified thanks to dozens of young volunteers armed with flashlights.
• Although not many people seemed to realize it, the Pops has “gone green” by publishing its playlists on its Web site ( and on a free app downloadable for tablets and smart phones. A limited number of paper copies were available last night.
• Fortunately last night was the only concert this summer where the Pops goes head to head with the California Philharmonic at nearby Santa Anita Racetrack. At least one patron got on the wrong shuttle and ended up at the Arboretum instead of the other location.
• Last night was also the only concert of the summer that didn’t invite Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein, who returns on July 19 to sing music by George and Ira Gershwin with Blank again on the podium (LINK). Feinstein will conduct the final two concerts of the summer on Aug. 16 and Sept. 6.

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Cal Phil, Pasadena Pops perform Saturday in Arcadia

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This column was published today in the above papers.

Summertime … and the classical music season warms up along with the temperatures. Arcadia is the place to be on Saturday as the California Philharmonic begins its 2014 summer season at Santa Anita Racetrack, while a few hundred yards away at the Los Angeles County Arboretum the Pasadena Pops continues its summer schedule.

• Music by John Williams headlines the Cal Phil’s opening concert, as Victor Vener leads his ensemble in the first of five concerts at the performing space in the infield of the famed racetrack. Among the selections will be a violin/cello arrangement of the theme from Schindler’s List, with father and son duo Dennis Karmazyn on cello and Max Karmazyn on violin as soloists. The program will also include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Orff’s Carmina Burana, with the Cal Phil Chorale assisting in the latter.

Other 2014 concerts are:
July 12 — “Copland and Cowboys”
July 26 — “Music, Fantasy and Adventure”
Aug. 9 — “Movie Masterpieces
Aug. 23 — “Broadway and Bolero”
As usual, each outdoor program is repeated the following afternoon in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Information:

• Broadway is on the Pasadena Pops agenda Saturday night, as resident conductor Larry Blank leads the orchestra in a potpourri of selections from famous Broadway shows. Soloists include vocalists Susan Egan, Valerie Perri, Christina Saffran, Lisa Vroman, and David Burnham. Among the shows featured will be Cabaret, Evita, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, A Chorus Line, The Music Man, Wicked and West Side Story.

This is the only concert of the five-event Pops season that will go head-to-head with the Cal Phil, but as is usual when that happens, traffic issues can arise. This is also the only Pops concert of the season where Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein will not appear. Information:

Got a bunch of money? If you hurry you can still find an orchestra that will put your name on its music director position. The Chicago Symphony was the latest to join the naming craze when a gift of $17 million from the Zell Family Foundation bought perpetual naming rights to the orchestra’s music director position, currently held by Riccardo Muti.

If the name “Zell” sounds familiar, it’s because Sam Zell bought The Tribune Co. (including the Los Angeles Times) in April 2007 and then took it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy 20 months later.

The CSO joins the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Gustavo Dudamel holds the title of “Music Director, Walt and Lily Disney Chair” (which is amusing since Dudamel only sits on a chair during rehearsal), and Los Angeles Opera, where James Conlon is the “Richard Seaver Music Director.” Upon checking their Web sites, it appears that both the Pasadena Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are still open.

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Indoor, outdoor concerts clash in first weekend of June

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Style: "p25+-Ipro"
Michael Feinstein will open his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor on June 7 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

We’re at that odd time of the year for classical music when seasons collide. In June we’re wrapping up indoor seasons and beginning the outdoor concerts that are so much a part of Southern California life and, unfortunately, they all collide next weekend.

On the indoor scene:
• The Pasadena-based Angeles Chorale will conclude its 2013-2014 season at UCLA’s Royce Hall on June 7 at 8 p.m. when long-time artistic director and now resident guest conductor Donald Neuen makes his final appearance with the Angeles Chorale. The ensemble will be joined by the UCLA Chorale, UCLA Philharmonia and piano soloist Neal Stulberg in an all-Beethoven program: Mass in C Major, Choral Fantasy and the “Hallelujah” chorus from Christ on the Mount of Olives. Soloists for the mass will be soprano Sarah Grandpre, alto Sarah Anderson, tenor Daniel Suk, and bass Michael Dean. Information:

• The Pasadena Master Chorale’s final concert this year will feature Carl Orff’s ever-popular Carmina Burana on June 7 at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein will conduct the work’s two-piano chamber version. Soprano Krystle Casey and Baritone Ryan Thorn will be the soloists. Information:

• On June 8, Pasadena Pro Musica concludes its 50th season at 4 p.m. at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church as Artistic Director Stephen Grimm leads a program of music by Mozart. Soloists include soprano Paula Rasmussen, who sang with PPM as a young chorister and has since gone on to an international opera career. Information:

• The Los Angeles Master Chorale wraps up its 50th season on June 8 at 7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall as Artistic Director Grant Gershon leads world premieres of pieces by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Conductor Laurate Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Lang, and the Chorale’s composer-in-residence, Shawn Kirschner, along with music by Gabriela Lena Frank and Francisco Nuñez. Gershon’s new title came with welcome news that he is extending his contract with LAMC through 2019-2020. Information:

On the outdoor front, Michael Feinstein returns for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, leading the group’s opening concert on June 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The program will include a treasure trove of lost works that Feinstein has unearthed in places ranging from libraries to garages as he continues to build “The Great American Songbook.” Feinstein will conduct three of this summer’s concerts and sing in a fourth. Information:

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

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PREVIEW: Michael Feinstein appears with Pasadena Pops in four summer concerts

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

To no one’s great surprise, summer with the Pasadena Pops will be a Michael Feinstein affair as the singer-conductor-curator will appear in four of the five Pops programs at the Los Angeles County Arboretum beginning June 7.

The Pops’ gamble on hiring Feinstein as its Principal Conductor paid off big dividends last summer and the organization moved quickly to capitalize on that success in planning the upcoming season. Feinstein will conduct three of the summer programs and will appear as a singer in an all Gershwin-concert on July 19.

The concerts:
June 7:
Feinstein will lead a program of music by Harry Warren, Richard Rodgers, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini and Alfred Newman, and the world premiere of a piece by André Previn, which was originally part of a movie score that never materialized. Vocalists Laura Osnes and Norm Lewis and pianist Armen Guzelimian will be guests.

June 28:
On the only program not involving Feinstein on stage, composer-producer-songwriter Tena Clark appears with Dionne Warwick, Sheléa Frazier, Sara Niemetz and the orchestra’s resident conductor, Larry Blank.

July 19:
Feinstein puts aside his baton to sing Gershwin and selections from other composers.

August 16:
Feinstein curates and conducts music from the silver screen — Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney. Debby Boone, Alan Bergman, Maureen McGovern and Kevin Early will also appear.

September 6:
In a program entitled “New York! New York!, Feinstein turns to music that celebrates the Big Apple. Patti Austin, Liz Callaway and Jeremy Jordan are on the program.

• The complete media release and artists’ photos are HERE
• For information and ticket ordering, click HERE

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

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