Michael Feinstein was surprised to be asked to fill the newly named Marvin Hamlisch Chair as principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops orchestra.
“I was gobsmacked,” Feinstein said, “and very touched.”
Feinstein succeeds Hamlisch, who died at age 68 on Aug. 6, less than a month after he conducted his last Pops concert at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Appearing with Hamlisch at the concert was Feinstein, his friend and fellow champion of the Great American Songbook.
“We took a chance and called Michael and said, ‘Would you consider…?’ And we were delighted that he said yes,” said Paul Jan Zdunek, chief executive of the Pasadena Symphony and Pops.
“My first thought was that there are many people who are more qualified than I,” Feinstein said. “But I have certain musical instincts that I’ve learned over the last 25 years of working with orchestras and conductors, and I realized that this is something I very much would like to do.”
And because of his friendship with Hamlisch — the two performed together extensively over many years — “it almost felt like he was encouraging me in some odd way to consider it,” Feinstein said.
The Marvin Hamlisch Chair was created in honor of the late Pops conductor, who rose to fame as song composer for “A Chorus Line” and was in rare company for having earned Emmy, Grammy and Oscar awards, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize over his celebrated lifetime of work for stage and screen.
Feinstein and Hamlisch shared a passion for the golden age of American popular music and its legendary composers, lyricists and artists. Urbane singer-pianist Feinstein has devoted his career to the performance, promotion and preservation of the music of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart and other Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood musical luminaries.
A youthful 55, Feinstein is an engaging missionary for the genre, introducing audiences of all ages to the artistry, romanticism and sophistication of songs that defined American popular music for decades during the 20th century.
“Marvin Hamlisch really believed in spreading the gospel of this music,” Zdunek said, “and Michael is the only other person truly doing that, not only from the entertainment standpoint, but from a curatorial standpoint.
“And first and foremost, Michael is a fantastic musician and a great entertainer. It’s as close to Marvin as one can get. We take great comfort in knowing that Michael has stepped forward.”
Hamlisch understood that the music is “above all, an entertainment,” Feinstein noted, “but that it can sometimes be education in the guise of entertainment. His stage manner and presentation were always brilliantly funny, but also very informative. That was a great lesson for me.”
Feinstein’s own recent experience with the Pasadena Pops was another “major factor” in his decision to become its principal conductor. “The management and staff are not only delightful people to work with, but they are first-rate at what they do,” he said, “and the orchestra itself is world-class. This orchestra is all about the music and a love for the music, and that’s a rarity these days.”
The Pops job means another addition to the already prodigious number of hats worn by this acclaimed interpreter of American standards. In addition to his active recording and performing career (with some 200 shows a year), Feinstein is director of the American Popular Song Series at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and he is artistic director of the new Palladium Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind. The center also houses a museum displaying Feinstein’s rare musical memorabilia and manuscripts.
He is founder of the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, featuring educational programs, master classes and an annual High School Vocal Academy and Competition; he serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, has a nationally syndicated public radio show called “Song Travels,” and his TV special, “Michael Feinstein — The Sinatra Legacy,” is nominated for a 2012 Emmy.
In addition, Feinstein’s new book, “The Gershwins and Me,” published by Simon & Schuster, comes out in October; a Feinstein-designed “First Ladies” Steinway piano bears the signatures of several former First Ladies, and Feinstein’s at Loews Regency is a Manhattan nightclub hot spot.
One recent project that Feinstein will no longer be working on: a Broadway musical version of the film classic, “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
“I have decided to put that aside in light of all the other things that are going on,” Feinstein said.
When asked to explain his affinity for the music of past generations, Feinstein, who in his 20s landed a life-changing job as Ira Gershwin’s personal archivist, said that from an early age “something about that music just touched my heart. It captivated me in a way that the pop songs on the radio did not.”
The Columbus, Ohio, native began playing the piano at age 5 and was soon picking out songs by the American Songbook greats, “trying to figure out what it was about them that I liked, trying to play the harmonies that attracted me,” Feinstein said.
“I feel that we have spiritual connections with different things in our world, and I believe that we have more than one life,” he said. “While my parents don’t believe that, they did find it startling that, according to my father, when I was a babe in arms, he’d hum certain music to me and I’d hum it back. That has to come from somewhere.”
Feinstein is already thinking about programming his Pops concerts, which are set to begin in June.
“I have a tremendously long list of potential concerts, and over the next couple of weeks we’re going to be narrowing that down. I’d love to do a Henry Mancini tribute,” he said, noting that next year is the 50th anniversary of “The Pink Panther” and Mancini’s signature film score. “Putting together my own Gershwin show is an inevitability, but when I’ll do that, and in what form, depends. I really have to get with the orchestra and brainstorm with them. I’ll be like a kid in a candy store.”
“I’m so deeply honored to have this opportunity,” Feinstein added. “I will give it my heart and soul to make it great for everybody.”
(Note: Pasadena Pops will present its previously scheduled Sept. 8 “Gershwin on the Green” concert at the Los Angeles County Arboretum under the baton of noted conductor and composer Larry Blank; the orchestra will also perform a concert in tribute to Hamlisch at 7 p.m. on Sept. 22 on the Pasadena City Hall steps. Actor Jason Alexander will host the free “Music Under the Stars” concert, conducted by Larry Blank. Information: pasadenasymphony-pops.org)
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.