“It was a moment of truth,” said Feinstein, who had come to the position with no previous conducting experience. “I knew it would drastically go in one direction or the other. I said to myself, ‘God’s will be done,’ and I just went out and did the best I could.”
The nerves showed that night, but Feinstein, who had studied seriously for his new position as the Pops' handpicked successor to the late Marvin Hamlisch, acquitted himself well and loosened up considerably before that first concert was over. Since then, Feinstein’s signature musicality and rapport with both orchestra and audiences have clearly been a draw.
Feinstein wraps up his second season with the Pops on Sept. 6 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia with a “New York! New York!” theme, featuring works by Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Harry Warren and more. Guest artists include “Graceland” actor Aaron Tveit (“He has a great voice, and is a great interpreter of classic music,” Feinstein said), Liz Calloway, “another tremendously talented singer,” and Grammy-winning vocalist Patti Austin. “She’s just incredible. I love her work.”
The evening’s “grand finale,” Feinstein said, will be a re-creation of the “42nd Street” sequence from the 1933 Warner Bros. film classic with original orchestrations, a choir and tap dancers.
Like Hamlisch, his friend and kindred musical spirit, Feinstein is a renowned interpreter and preserver of the Great American Songbook — music by such composers and lyricists of the early and mid-20th century as George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Porter, Rodgers and Hart and many more. Conducting, however, was a “great leap,” Feinstein said, calling from New York where he would be taping two PBS specials (a commemoration of the reopening of Manhattan’s historic Rainbow Room and a New Year’s Eve show).
His Pops challenges, Feinstein said, have been “to effectively communicate what I feel inside musically to the orchestra, to learn the basic technique of conducting and to be able to communicate in those terms.
“When I play the piano, I put my hands on the keys and the notes are immediately there.” But conducting “is like learning a different language,” Feinstein said. “Understanding that when I move my fingers or my arm, or move the baton one way or another, it creates a reaction. And it is not always an intuitive movement. That has been the greatest challenge: to promptly communicate — with the baton and the body and the being — the essence of the music.”
By the end of his first season with the Pops, Feinstein had attracted record audiences with a mix of the familiar and rarely or never-before-heard orchestrations of songs, punctuated by informative anecdotes and comic banter.
“Working with the orchestra has been fantastic,” Feinstein said. “They are wonderful musicians and such kind people, and they have responded so enthusiastically to the unusual pieces of music that I have asked them to play.”
The Sept. 6 program will feature two world premieres: a complete restoration of Oscar Levant’s main title from the original soundtrack of the David O. Selznick film “Nothing Sacred” and the main title from the movie “How to Marry a Millionaire,” a 1953 arrangement by Alfred Newman that has never been performed live in public, Feinstein noted. “I’ll have a couple of orchestral sketches from the estate of Andre Kostelanetz, whom I once met at the home of Ira Gershwin,” Feinstein said. “He was a very kind man in addition to being an iconic musical force.
“And I’ve got some swing charts, ‘Stomping at the Savoy’ and ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside,’ great orchestra arrangements of big band standards that were originally commissioned by a very fine conductor, Newton Wayland.”
Feinstein “continues to bring music that no one else is hearing in the world,” said Paul Jan Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony and Pops. “That sounds like a big statement, but given his decades and decades of, as Michael says, ‘dumpster diving,’ he is bringing music to us that no one else regionally or around the country is hearing. That has been amazing for our orchestra and for our audiences.
“There are [other] conductors who bring rare pieces to concerts,” Zdunek said, “but Michael brings amazing pieces that we can’t believe had gotten lost along the way. It’s not just to do it as a gimmick — these are pieces that should have stayed in the repertoire.”
Frequent flyer Feinstein, who is also Director of the American Popular Song Series for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and Artistic Director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana, performs nearly 200 concerts a year. He serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, has a nationally syndicated public radio show, “Song Travels,” and is founder of the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative.
After his PBS tapings, Feinstein would go on to London, and then fly back to Los Angeles for his first rehearsal with the Pops prior to the Sept. 6 concert.
“It’s a lot of zigging and zagging,” he said, “but it’s certainly worth it. The experience of conducting is something that I never dreamt I would be able to do, and I feel very humbled by the collaboration with such fine musicians. It’s very gratifying to be able to grow artistically at this point in my career.”
Feinstein is already looking forward to the POPS’ 2015 season, he said. It will feature a celebration of Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, a salute to the Oscars, and a Sinatra tribute, “the one show that I will be singing.”
Where: Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Arcadia.
When: Sept. 6: Gates open at 5:30 p.m. for picnicking; concert begins at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and parking:Pre-ordered dining packages available; food court and beverage centers on site. Pre-purchased parking at the Arboretum available to subscribers; free parking and shuttle service at the adjacent Westfield Santa Anita shopping center. Table or lawn seating (bring a blanket). Single ticket prices per adult: $20 to $42. Lawn seating per child, $10; group table seating available.
More info:(626)-793-7172, pasadenasymphony-pops.org.
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.