The magic of the Gershwin songbook swept the Los Angeles County Arboretum on Saturday, when Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, together with guest vocalists Catherine Russell and Tom Wopat, closed the 2013 season in glossy, old-school fashion.
Although the evening, which coincided with Feinstein’s birthday, concluded the Grammy nominee’s debut summer as principal conductor, you’d hardly have guessed it. From preshow appearance, receiving a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” by orchestra and audience, to final “surprise encore we have planned,” Feinstein wielded his baton and anecdotal commentary with an assurance that suggested decades of pops podium tactics.
Inspired by Feinstein’s book “Michael Feinstein: The Gershwins and Me,” the eclectic program sampled not just George and Ira Gershwin’s artistry but also that of certain Broadway and Hollywood collaborators. Namely, their orchestrators, a motif that began with the first selection: the premiere of Ray Heindorf’s previously unheard overture to the 1946 biopic “Rhapsody in Blue.”
This imposing arrangement, containing enough standards for its own concert, found conductor and orchestra establishing a level of cohesion and dynamic attention that was never less than proficient and consistently delightful. As in Nelson Riddle’s plangent orchestration of the Second Piano Prelude, its haunting reed solos and lush string divisions casting a spell over the 4,000-person crowd, or the grand sweep of Hershy Kay’s “Porgy and Bess Suite,” the brass and percussion sections particularly impressive.
Or Riddle’s charts for Ella Fitzgerald, wherein the dusky-voiced Russell deftly demonstrated her own incisive range. Turning “Nice Work If You Can Get It” into a textbook study of straight-toned panache, delivering “The Man I Love” and "Love Walked In" with a passion that wouldn’t shame Shirley Bassey, Russell brought the songwriters’ intentions into sizzling focus.
Wopat, who replaced the previously announced Chuck Cooper, was perhaps more affable than electrifying. Yet if his light baritone betrayed some jet lag -- understandable after flying in from New York, where he's in the Broadway cast of "The Trip to Bountiful" -- Wopat’s easy bebop approach was in keeping with the community-concert ethos. His take on “That Certain Feeling,” backed by the a cappella group Down 4 the Count, and Riddle’s deathless Sinatra setting of “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ ” were especially relaxed and audience-friendly.
There were other pleasures, as when the JPL Chorus sang “I Got Rhythm” with droll glee-club bounce, or when Feinstein, whose late-inning solo of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" turned the Arboretum into an intimate piano bar, acknowledged attending celebrities, from Gershwin family members to Debby Boone and Betty White.
His gracious enthusiasm, like the giant projection screens framing the band shell, indicated that this summer series is ready for the big time. Certainly, the orchestra, in its detailed precision and technical aplomb, is a first-rate entity, and its endearing maestro is a perfect fit for such unassuming expertise.
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