Michael Feinstein is the principal conductor of the Pasadena Symphony's Pops Orchestra.
But what he really is cherished for is his singing. He has made a career of performing the great songs of what's known as the Great American Songbook. He searches for scores and orchestrations that have been forgotten and discarded, and brings them back to life.
Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Arcadia, he was with the Pops, of course, but rather than conducting, he sang and told stories of his long association with Ira Gershwin, the lyricist who was just as important to much of the music of Ira's brother George and who was, not incidentally, one of the greatest lyricists in American music.
The program was billed as “Michael Feinstein Sings Gershwin,” and conductor Larry Blank took the baton. Feinstein sang more than 15 Gershwin songs and mixed his delightful singing with his intimate knowledge of the Gershwins: composer George, who died long before Feinstein was born, and Ira, whom Feinstein worked with for more than six years.
The evening began with “Strike Up the Band,” the title song from the Gershwins' musical attempt at political satire. From there, Feinstein progressed to the romantic “Shall We Dance?” and “I've Got a Crush on You,” and then, returning to politics, sang “Of Thee I Sing,” from the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical of the same name.
Feinstein sang a less-than-well-known “Rialto Ripples” with verve, and finished the first set with the classic “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Dick Hazard's delightful arrangement of “I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” which stopped the show just in time for intermission.
During the second half, Feinstein — who is as much a pianist as a singer — played his instrument with a swinging intensity and flair.
He charmed the audience with Blank's arrangement of “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” one of the most memorable Gershwin classics. Other offerings included “Who Cares?” and the perennial “Embraceable You.”
Then he threw in a nonsense patter song called “Tchaikovsky (And Other Russians)” from the musical “Lady in the Dark” with music by German emigre Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. The song was a hit for Danny Kaye in 1941. For “Tchaikovsky,” Feinstein went through a fast-talking list of every Russian composer, from Liadov to Rachmaninoff.
Fred Astaire, Feinstein's favorite singer, premiered many of the Gershwins' songs in films, and a medley was devoted to those. Then Feinstein did George Gershwin's first great hit, “Swanee,” and the evening ended with “Fascinating Rhythm” and an encore.
There were food trucks aplenty just off the concert green, and even for viewers in the back of the concert area, the big screens showed the action. The sound system did not overwhelm those in the front, and gave plenty of amplification in the rear. Only the applause sounded feeble, a function of the great outdoor area.
The Pops is still trying to find its way around its Arcadia home. Parking is, for all but a few, down the road at the Westfield Santa Anita mall, and the shuttle buses, run as efficiently as possible by Arboretum employees, are still less than efficient. It took more than an hour to get back to the parking lot via bus after Saturday's concert.
John Farrell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.