The Transylvania Times -

Feinstein Loves Singing Great American Songbook

Returns To BMC June 25


June 17, 2019

Five-time Grammy Award nominee Michael Feinstein, who is looking forward to returning to Brevard Music Center on Tuesday, June 25, to present “That’s Entertainment,” welcomes the title of Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.

The Great American Songbook is the canon of the most popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th Century, including songs from Broadway and Hollywood musicals.

“One of the things that is great about this music is that because it can be interpreted in so many ways, new audiences are always discovering it,” said Feinstein. “I’m lucky to sing a genre of music that is lasting.”

Being given the title of ambassador for this genre is not a burden for Feinstein.

“I don’t feel that because I’m at the point where I just love singing the music, and the way I’ve interpreted it has changed through the years as styles change. The essence of what I do has remained the same,” he said.

Feinstein approaches the music that he performs from the perspective of the songwriter, not the singer.

“I think about the songwriters as opposed to the artists, for the most part, unless there’s an iconic song that is so inseparably connected with an artist, like Judy Garland and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I’ve always been a champion of the songwriter,” he said. “I always go back to the source material.”

A few years back he recorded two CDs celebrating Frank Sinatra, one of which earned Feinstein his fifth Grammy nomination. His goal was to present the songs in a way that captured certain kind of vibration or point of view that celebrated Sinatra without copying him.

“When the song is iconically connected to somebody else, I will not sing it unless I feel I can bring something unique or different to the table,” said Feinstein.

Feinstein is able to be selective with his music because the American Songbook is so vast. He said Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the Gershwins each wrote more than 1,000 songs.

“It’s not challenging because, first of all, there are thousands of songs out there. Being a musician, it’s fun to sit down and say ‘what can I do with this that will make it different.’ If I can’t make a certain song work, I’ll go on to the next one,” he said. “It’s not like there’s not enough songs. There are so many thousands and thousands of songs, I’ll never be able to sing all of them. That’s the challenge, trying to get all the songs. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of songs in so little time.”

For each show Feinstein puts together a theme.

“It’s finding a theme and then putting together a list of songs that have an arc, like a musical play,” he said. “I put together my own little unspoken journey or triptych so I have an emotional through-line when I present a program of music. That’s fun for me, especially at this point in my life. If something isn’t fun, I don’t do it, and what a gift to have a profession where I can do that.”

The upcoming BMC performance, “That’s Entertainment,” presents music from the heyday of Hollywood musicals.

“The show itself is one that I’m excited to present,” said Feinstein.

The show will include music that was originally sung by luminaries such as Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

Feinstein also is looking forward to working with the exceptional members of symphony and the opportunity to bring with him some “fantastic orchestrations,” some of which are classic arrangements that he has rediscovered and revived.

Feinstein fondly recalled his last visit to Brevard and music center in 2011.

“It’s an oasis; an incredibly beautiful and, dare I say, bucolic setting, especially for music,” said Feinstein of Brevard. “There is a deep appreciation the arts and strong music programs that touch my heart.

“I also remember that the setting for the concert is very gratifying in the way that the performer can connect with the audience. I remember feeling in Brevard very connected to the audience. Every performance space has its own energy and its own vibe, and I remember feeling comfortable and casual, and it feels sort of like a celebration, a celebratory atmosphere, and that conspires to hopefully create great music.”

Feinstein also appreciated the small town charm of Brevard and the surrounding natural beauty.

“For me, it is essential to be able to touch nature and have times of quiet, to not have my brain physically and mentally crowded,” said Feinstein. “There is a very different experience in being in a place where one can physically, mentally and spiritually spread out.”

“Every time I go there (Brevard), I don’t want to leave,” he said.

Brevard is not the only small town for which Feinstein has an affinity. Although he spends much of his time in Los Angeles and New York, he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and is a resident of Carmel, Ind., which is also home to the Great American Songbook Foundation.

“I was a weird kid because when I was 5 years old I gravitated towards music that was written 30, 40 years before my time. It was something about the songs of Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter and Gershwin that emotionally touched me, and so I know that these songs appeal to multi-generations because they are unique in what they express and they stand strongly next to any contemporary music,” he said. “I created the Songbook Foundation to educate, to teach, to introduce young people to this body of music, which is just spectacular.”

The foundation hosts an annual high school Songbook Academy in Carmel, where 40 students from across the country participate in a weeklong Songbook intensive.

“It’s like planting seeds. It’s a wonderful thing to see these young people embrace and interpret these songs on an emotional level that is pretty staggering,” he said. “That’s an important part of what we do.”

But the foundation does far more than just present the American Songbook to young people. It also has a program called Perfect Harmony that presents the music to people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“It’s a program that’s growing and that we hope one day will be national because there’s such a deep need for it,” said Feinstein.

The foundation is also building a physical and virtual museum celebrating the American Songbook.

“We have a Rock n’ roll Hall of Fame. We have a Country Music Hall of Fame, and we need to have a place to celebrate this music as well,” said Feinstein. “We are making incredible progress because we have a number of people who are supporting us financially, even though we have a ways to go and we need other angels. There are quite a few people who share the vision.”

He said the Songbook museum would become a reality because the city of Carmel is quite involved in helping to acquire the property for the site.

“It’s going to happen. It is happening,” he said. “It’s obviously something that I’m greatly looking forward to.”

Feinstein’s musical interests and influences extend far beyond his performances and promoting the American Songbook. Feinstein also serves as artistic director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts, a $170 million, three-theatre venue in Carmel. He has received or been nominated for awards for his shows on NPR and PBS and serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board. He also has night clubs in New York and earlier this month just opened a new club, Feinstein’s at Vitello’s in Studio City, Calif.

In 2012, Feinstein was named principal Pops conductor for the Pasadena Symphony and made his conducting debut in June 2013 to critical acclaim.

“That is still a new and very joyful experience,” he said of conducting.

Feinstein designed a new piano for Steinway called “The First Ladies,” which was inspired by the White House piano and signed by several former First Ladies.

Feinstein also wrote a book titled “The Gershwins and Me” and is currently working on a second book.

“It’s actually a book on how to find time to relax in our fast-paced society,” he said.

Feinstein said that since he travels so much, he has discovered there is “hidden time” in which he can take even 15 or 20 seconds to relax or do small rituals that will rejuvenate him or diffuse any tension he is feeling.

He also is continuing to write songs.

“I’m doing a little more songwriting, which is fun, and I’ve recorded a number of my own songs and performed them. Trying to find a musical expression for today is something that is a challenge, a delicious challenge, so I’m doing more of that,” he said.

With all of these diverse interests, Feinstein still enjoys singing the Great American Songbook.

“My favorite thing is still performing,” he said. “I’ll never give up doing the standards because people want to hear me do that, so there’s no worry of that ever falling by the wayside.”

That is why he is looking forward to returning to the stage at BMC’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium on June 25.

“This is going to be a fun show,” he said.


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