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Review: Michael Feinstein strikes up the band with Pasadena Pops

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Singer-pianist Michael Feinstein made his first appearance as principal pops conductor of the Pasadena Pops on Saturday night at the L.A. County Arboretum — and thereby hangs a tale.

Only less than a year before, Feinstein appeared as a guest performer with Marvin Hamlisch and the Pops. Shockingly, it turned out to be Hamlisch’s last concert, for only 16 days later, he was gone. So this could be interpreted as a poignant gesture of continuity that was also aimed at attracting a sizable audience — which it did.

There was one catch: Feinstein had never conducted before. Anywhere.

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Of course, something like that didn’t stop one of Feinstein’s heroes, Frank Sinatra, who early in his career quite ably conducted a set of Alec Wilder pieces for records, despite never having done it before. Apparently, innate natural musicality plus the flexibility and alertness of the ensemble are greater determining factors — and Feinstein had both working for him that night.

He is obviously learning the ropes; his motions are pretty much by-the-instruction-book. But it must be said that the Pasadena Pops played better for the rookie Feinstein than it did for the experienced Hamlisch in the latter’s first concert with the orchestra two years ago.

There were even passages where liftoff was achieved — particularly the way the orchestra genuinely swung during the last bars of “Don’t Be That Way” in a Benny Goodman medley or the jumpin’ Nelson Riddle chart of “Jump For Joy.”  There is promise here.

Yet what really made this concert a success was Feinstein’s imaginative, searching programming, far beyond the norm for your average so-called pops concert.

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Ever the devoted antiquarian of American music, Feinstein unearthed fascinating finds — a jaunty “March For Americans” by Ferde Grofé, unheard since 1941 and filled with his harmonic trademarks; a gorgeous arrangement of Lionel Newman’s haunting tune “Again”; and James P. Johnson’s “Victory Stride” with its riotous big-band ending. He feted the great classical “pops” composer Leroy Anderson with the Latin-American-grooved “Serenata,” the only Anderson piece that became a jazz standard.  

Throughout the evening, Feinstein offered a flood of useful, accurate information and anecdotes about each piece. I like this kind of erudite yet entertaining approach to music history at a “pops” concert — the more, the better, I say — although it’s hard to tell how it went over with the general audience. 

Feinstein generously passed the spotlight to three guest singers from time to time. Country singer Lari White sounded comfortable in a belting Streisand mode in a sequence from “Yentl.” Writer-producer Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”) was amusing in Noel Coward’s “Mrs. Worthington.” Cheyenne Jackson roamed ebulliently from wisecracking neo-swing in “Americano” to Duke Ellington at ballad tempo (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) and falsetto R&B in Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Finally, after bravely refraining from falling back on vocals during his conducting debut, Feinstein went to the piano and sang a hushed, emotional elegy to his predecessor. You guessed it: “The Way We Were.”

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