After being named successor to the late Marvin Hamlisch as principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, Michael Feinstein, a then-novice at conducting, studied up on the craft. But there's nothing like practical experience. That's what this renowned interpreter of the Great American Songbook got over the summer, conducting three outdoor Pops concerts at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia.
If nerves were apparent during Feinstein's first, otherwise delightful concert in June, they were much less so at his second in July and nowhere in evidence on his third and final concert of the season, “Michael Feinstein: The Gershwins and Me,” on Sept. 7. Inspired by his book of the same name, the concert fell, coincidentally, on Feinstein's birthday.
True, with nothing but Gershwin on the program, Ira Gershwin's former assistant-turned-stellar performer was in his natural element; but it is clear that Feinstein has now relaxed fully into deft and engaging conductor mode.
At ease with both audience and the orchestra, Feinstein provided salient points about the history of each piece on the program, told loosely related stories (“because I'm in my anecdotage”), tossed in humorous asides, unrepentant puns and offered this heartfelt observation: “For me to interpret Gershwin in a way I never have before,” he said, “is a dream come true.”
Following the orchestra's surprise pre-show “Happy Birthday” sing-along for Feinstein, the evening opened with the premiere of the overture to the 1945 Warner Bros. Gershwin biopic, “The Rhapsody in Blue.” This lush arrangement by Ray Heindorf, cut from the film, included themes from “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” Lady Be Good” and other Gershwin classics. As it swept into Gershwin's iconic “Rhapsody in Blue,” melody rising in the night with piercing sweetness, the entire orchestra — again led by exceptional concertmaster Aimee Kreston — demonstrated the graceful authority and cohesion that would distinguish Feinstein's entire evening on the podium.
The “Rhapsody” overture characterized too this season's Feinstein-at-the-Pops hallmark: his sharing of rarely and never-before-heard arrangements culled from his vast song library. Among these: “Japanese,” an orchestral miniature, jaunty with plucked and tapped strings, written before 1920 and discovered in a Hollywood garage. “How Long Has This Been Going On,” originally intended for the 1928 stage musical “Funny Face,” and a live concert first. “Love Walked In” (arranger unknown), a song with a “Brahms-y” melody heard only once before, Feinstein explained, on a 1957 Cyd Charisse TV show. It was sung by guest artist Catherine Russell, jazz and blues stylist supreme, and a sophisticated combination of elegance, power and swing.
The concert was also a tribute to famed orchestrator Nelson Riddle. His instrumental and song arrangements on the program included Gershwin's exquisite “Second Prelude,” introduced by Feinstein as the composer's self-described “blue lullaby,” and performed with stunning clarity and depth; and recreations of Riddle's arrangements of “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Things Are Looking Up” and “The Man I Love” for Ella Fitzgerald — performed by Russell.
In particular, Russell's rendition of “The Man I Love” was one highlight among many. Belting to a big finish, then tenderly finessing the final notes, Russell brought the audience to its collective feet.
Among other highlights: a cheeky, brassy “I Got Rhythm” with the JPL Chorus. A breathtaking “Porgy and Bess Suite,” arranged by Hershey Key and briefly competing with nearby sirens, and Feinstein's moving introductory anecdote about meeting Broadway's original Bess, Anne Brown, then in her 90s. Brown had refused to perform a tour stop at a segregated theater in Washington, she told Feinstein, and George Gershwin persuaded theater management to desegregate during the show's run.
Guest artist Tom Wopat, a veteran stage actor and recording artist, currently appearing in the Broadway production of “A Trip to Bountiful,” applied his gravelly, amiable baritone and Rat Pack-flavored swing to “I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' — another Nelson Riddle arrangement — and to the jazzy “But Not For Me.” Wopat's joint performance of “That Certain Feeling” with Los Angeles-based a capella group Down 4 the Count was a harmony-rich, big-band-style crowd-pleaser.
The blurring of some fortissimo moments in the Pops' June concert, apparently due to an out-of-sync sound system, wasn't a factor here. Nuance and clarity were evident even at full orchestral throttle. (A shout out too for the varied ambient lighting and for well-directed close-up views of the orchestra, conductor and guest artists projected on two large screens flanking the band shell.)
Feinstein — whose contract with the Pops has already been extended through 2016, and who is reportedly bringing in record attendance numbers — left his conductor's podium for the piano only once during the Sept. 7 concert. Nicely timed to occur just before the Pops' effervescent performances of “Shall We Dance” and “S'Wonderful” encore, Feinstein sang “They Can't Take That Away From Me” with signature, celebratory warmth, previewing a program he will perform in the Pops 2014 season.
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.