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Review: With Pasadena Pops, Michael Feinstein goes big with Bernstein

Finn Sagal, left, Ali McGregor, Julian Ovenden and Michael Feinstein share the stage Saturday.
Finn Sagal, left, Ali McGregor, Julian Ovenden and Michael Feinstein share the stage Saturday.
(Melissa Kobe )

The Bernstein centenary celebrations just keep on coming.

The Leonard Bernstein Office recently upped its estimate to more than 3,300 events worldwide as Bernstein’s actual 100th birthday looms this Saturday. The sheer volume of tributes exceeds anything that occurred during his lifetime and might have even astonished Bernstein, who could never get enough love to satisfy his soul.

So it was inevitable that the Pasadena Pops — captained by the persistent curator of the Great American Songbook Michael Feinstein — would join this crowded party, though the orchestra did so at a point where some Bernstein fatigue is beginning to set in. Nevertheless, with Feinstein’s antiquarian bent in play, one could anticipate something different in his approach to the whole shebang — which is what we got at the L.A. County Arboretum on Saturday night.

Rather than devote the entire program to Bernstein, Feinstein sprinkled small doses of his music throughout an accumulation of this and that by others. The idea was to put Bernstein’s music within the context of his time and place, exploring his influences (a good stab at it), whom he influenced (not so much), and some pieces by his contemporaries. “Bernstein’s New York,” he called it. Feinstein went at it with his scholarly yet ever-entertaining patter that is always worth hearing out. There were some fresh first-hand Bernstein anecdotes like an example of his provocative behavior late in life (after asking whether Feinstein knew a piece by Poulenc — which he didn’t — Bernstein supposedly said, “You know, Michael Feinstein, you know a lot about music, but not enough”). He even performed a few mashups of Bernstein songs he once entertained the composer with on the piano.

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Most of all, Feinstein went out of his way to try to find connections between Bernstein and the other figures on the program who were in or out of his gravitational pull. Some were obvious, like Bernstein’s great friend and mentor Aaron Copland. Others were quite a stretch — like linking Bernstein and Peruvian vocal stunt lady Yma Sumac on the basis of a single 1953 joint concert from which Bernstein might — might — have stolen the idea for the famous Mambo from “West Side Story.”

All this was supposed to set up the eclectic variety of selections on tap. Things got off to a lugubrious start when Feinstein led perhaps the slowest rendition of the “Candide” Overture ever — slower than even Bernstein’s own late-life renditions, which I guess made it a kind of homage to the Lenny Feinstein knew. But things perked up considerably in a Pops revisit to the “New York, New York” arrangement that André Kostelanetz once played.

Before conducting Morton Gould’s bouncy “Pavanne” — which John Coltrane “borrowed” for his jazz standard “Impressions” — Feinstein commendably gave Gould his due as an important figure in American music. (Even though Gould, who was just as free-thinking as Bernstein, was maligned and subsequently downgraded for recording carloads of easy-listening albums.)

Singer Ali McGregor spectacularly demonstrated that her five-octave range is just about as wide as Sumac’s. The talented 18-year-old Finn Sagal dropped some Sinatra-like phrasing into “Time After Time,” followed by a Sinatra medley penned by Nelson Riddle (yes, Lenny and Frank knew each other). Julian Ovenden sang the other “New York, New York” — the one Sinatra made famous — after confessing that he loathed the song. The “surprise” special guest turned out to be Carol Lawrence — “West Side Story’s” original Maria — who at age 85 offered a starry-eyed reminiscence of Bernstein and a sturdy rendition in a throaty alto of “I Feel Pretty” with son Chris Goulet on vocal obbligato.

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It was all quite entertaining as a Feinstein/Pasadena Pops concert usually is, but the Bernstein fan in me has to raise two points. One, the meager selection of Bernstein was limited mostly to well-worn stuff from just two popular musicals, “On the Town and “West Side Story,” with only one relatively rare number, “Dream With Me” (from “Peter Pan”), to be heard. I would have expected more digging for treasure from Feinstein.

Also, I could not feel the spirit of Bernstein hovering over this program as he has on other events I’ve attended this last year. Perhaps there were too many other voices jamming his signal?

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