Louisville Orchestra: POPS with Michael Feinstein

Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis.

Entire contents are copyright © 2014 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

Louisville audiences were treated to many facets of Michael Feinstein during the February 15th Louisville Pops Orchestra program.  Singer, of course, and mentor, educator, conductor and conservator of the Great American Songbook of which he has been dubbed Ambassador.  With the obligatory nod to playing “Luh-ah-vull”, Mr. Feinstein swept the audience through four decades of American popular and show music supported both by the Orchestra and solo piano. Feinstein colleague Sam Kriger was the conductor of the evening.

Mr. Feinstein’s repertoire spans movie and musical numbers, the well-known and the less familiar, a testament to his commitment to keep alive the music that is America’s twentieth century legacy.  A sampling of the evening’s songs included compositions from Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields, Victor Young, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley and, of course, Gershwin. Mr. Feinstein is equally at home in a ballad – channeling favorite singer Fred Astaire – and up tempo numbers, belting out impressively extended final notes in a close collaboration with conductor Kriger.  His personal connections to so many of the legends of American music invest his performance with an authority and intimacy that is palpable even in a house as big as the Whitney Hall at the Kentucky Center.  He introduced “Just One of Those Things” (Cole Porter’s Jubilee) as having learned it from Rosemary Clooney, bringing a neat Kentucky connection to the evening.

Halfway through the first part of the evening, Mr. Feinstein introduced fifteen year-old Julie Goodwin, the winner of his 2013 Great American Songbook Contest, hosted at the Palladium Center for Performing Arts, Carmel, IN, of which he is the artistic director. His national initiative is designed “to inspire and educate through the Great American Songbook”, key to which is this now-annual competition. If Ms. Goodwin is representative of the ten high school finalists invited to Carmel each summer then the future of the American Songbook will indeed be cherished. Her rendition of “Feeling Good” (one of her two winning songs) was accomplished and poised, her bluesy, husky voice easily filling the Whitney and matching the full orchestra – a first for her as Mr. Feinstein said in his introduction.

Recently installed as principal conductor of the Pasadena Orchestra’s Pops series, Mr. Feinstein also conducted several pieces during the evening. He began with a salute to Judy Garland, an overture for when she performed at Carnegie Hall. Also included was a reconstruction of “Dancing in the Dark” (The Band Wagon), one of many pieces that have been lost to time – another reminder of Mr. Feinstein’s quest to uphold and restore this great tradition.  The “Hoedown” from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers provided one, of several, unscripted moments during the program as Mr. Feinstein restarted the piece twice to accomplish the opening sequence in the way he wished. The Orchestra seemed least polished during these pieces, perhaps a combination of a conductor still finding his style and musicians playing unfamiliar pieces presumably for the first time.

The music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin permeated the evening, both in performance and through anecdote. One of the highlights for me was the medley of Gershwin numbers during which Mr. Feinstein accompanied himself on the piano.  Preceded by an invitation for the audience to suggest their favorite Gershwin songs, the medley nonetheless has the feel of an old friend, an ease and familiarity of how each melody transitions into the next, including Mr. Feinstein’s spoken tribute to the closeness of George and Ira’s professional relationship and the depth of Ira’s desolation at his brother’s untimely death. “Our Love is Here to Stay” will now, for me, always be colored by Mr. Feinstein’s heartfelt introduction to this wistful ballad.

Mr. Feinstein turned the predictably-scheduled encore into a haunting and triumphant paean. Paying tribute to composer Leonard Bernstein’s commitment to peace, he and the orchestra launched into “Somewhere” (West Side Story). Beginning as the plaintive wish for a perfect world – sung by Tony and Maria in the musical – it is a transcendent moment in the show’s story. Mr. Feinstein’s rendition transcends that connotation and soars into a rousing call to action to everyone in the audience that “somehow, someday, somewhere” we can make our world perfect for all.

As so often in the Whitney, issues of amplification are troubling. There were times when Mr. Feinstein’s voice was distorted through the speakers, and there was a cognitive dissonance at the volume of the beautiful Steinway piano, a volume required for it to be heard with the full orchestra. As heartening as it was to witness the numbers who flocked to this Pops concert to hear Mr. Feinstein sing, and as adept as he was in both filling the hall and creating a sense of intimacy with his audience, having heard him in this venue, it is now my desire to hear him sing in a more intimate space, where each member of the audience can imagine that every song is directed to him or her alone.

Louisville Orchestra: POPS with Michael Feinstein

February 15, 2014

Louisville Orchestra
Kentucky Center for the Arts
Whitney Hall
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202