George Gershwin has been dead since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second term. Ira Gershwin left this world during the height of the Reagan administration. For Michael Feinstein, though, the Gershwins aren’t dead — they’ve lived on through their music. And on July 19, Feinstein will perform the Gershwins’ music with the Pasadena Pops at a special concert called, simply, “Michael Feinstein SINGS Gershwin.”
Soon after Feinstein moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in the late 1970s, he was introduced to Ira Gershwin by the widow of Oscar Levant. “He changed my life,” Feinstein said recently by phone. “He was a man who was infinitely kind and gentle and never had children, so I became like a son or a grandson.
“He brought the whole era to life for me in a way that was very exciting, and he was not only a conduit but had a great memory ...”
Memory is something that holds a heavy sway over Feinstein, who has been one of the country’s foremost advocates both for preserving and performing classic American songs. The Gershwins, of course, being a towering presence in American music, always held a certain fascination for Feinstein, even as a child.
“It was, at first, an emotional response,” Feinstein said. “It was the extraordinary harmonic palette of George Gershwin and his use of rhythm, and the energy and the excitement in the music, and then the seamless combination of the words that I didn’t understand much when I was little. But, as I grew older, I came to appreciate the deft fashion in which Ira was able to expand the power of the music.”
Working with Ira Gershwin was a dream come true for the young Feinstein, and as he looks back now, it’s with both wonder and a regret for things his older self would have liked to know.
“I now think, ‘Oh, gosh, why didn’t I ask him this? Why didn’t I ask him that?’ Because people ask me questions about certain things, and I don’t know the answer, but Ira would have.”
For Feinstein, performing music like the Gershwins’, both with the Pops and in his hundreds of concerts around the globe every year, is not only professionally fulfilling but also enriches today’s musical landscape.
“We have an incredible history, an incredible musical history and heritage that is wonderful, and music today has its attributes and its flaws, and I think one of the flaws of some music today ... is that it is rhythm-based and not based in melody and harmony, and the power of melody and harmony cannot be [overstated],” Feinstein said. “What music does for the soul is significant.”
Feinstein enjoys performing with the Pasadena Pops, and became the principal conductor of the orchestra after the passing of the great Marvin Hamlisch.
“It was certainly an incredible honor to be asked to conduct the orchestra, since I’ve had no prior training as a conductor, even though I’ve worked with many orchestras, but not waving a stick,” Feinstein said, with a chuckle.
“It was daunting, and still in some ways remains daunting, but it is the music itself that carries me through, and the incredible talent of the orchestra, and the joy that we experience collectively in making music.”
Feinstein offered some anecdotes about how the Gershwins’ Jewish background crept into their music.
“George, at one point, famously wanted to write an opera based on ‘The Dybbuk,’ ” Feinstein said, “but it turns out that the rights were already owned by an Italian composer, and he could not pursue the project.”
As for Jewish themes that did make it into their music, Feinstein said that “the most palpable one is in ‘Of Thee I Sing,’ which is a political operetta ... the French ambassador comes to Washington and as he makes his entrance, his henchmen are singing, ‘Garçon, sil vous plait ...’ and then they sing ... Yiddish for ‘Where does it hurt you, where?’ And I asked Ira why he put [the Yiddish] in it, and he said, ‘Because it sounds French.’ So that was his own little joke.”
Feinstein hopes a big crowd will come out for the concert, even if this might be their first exposure to the Gershwins’ music. “For people who don’t know anything about the Gershwins, it’s sort of a Gershwin 101 that will introduce them to their work. But for people who know and love the Gershwins, they’ll hear a lot of arrangements and fresh renditions of the work.”
Feinstein is busy prepping for two PBS specials that will be airing later in 2014, one a tribute to classic night clubs that will be filmed at the new Rainbow Room in New York and air in the fall, and the other, a New Year’s Eve celebration that he promised will not be a countdown show, but will be, he joked, “an alternative to Kathy Griffin.”
But on July 19, his mind will be focused solely on the Gershwins: “The power of how this music feeds the mind, body and spirit, it is essential to our existence. It is, to me, just as essential as learning reading, writing and arithmetic.”
Michael Feinstein SINGS Gershwin, Los Angeles County Arboretum with the Pasadena Pops on Saturday, July 19. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Concert at 7:30p.m. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit the Pasadena Pops online at www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org.