When the Pasadena Pops kicks off its summer season of concerts at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia on Saturday, it will be led by a music director and conductor who has never even played in an orchestra, much less conducted one.
It's a risky move certainly, but a shrewd one as well. The hiring of Michael Feinstein — on the heels of songwriter and veteran conductor Marvin Hamlisch's death last summer — taps the musicality, as well as the popularity, of a performer who has helped resuscitate popular American music from almost a century ago into a vital and active art form.
Without a single downbeat, Feinstein has programmed a 2013 summer filled with film and stage music and arrangements that have never been heard live. And Feinstein has lined up front-line singers such as Cheyenne Jackson and Christine Ebersole to deliver them while he presides.
All that's left is just one small detail — can Feinstein actually conduct?
Jan Zdunek is confident the answer is yes. His vote matters since he's the Pasadena Symphony Assn. chief executive who hired Feinstein within a couple of weeks of Hamlisch's death. He's aware the timing may have seemed abrupt, but it wasn't cold calculation as much a feeling that Feinstein had the necessary tangibles and the desired intangibles needed to lead the Pasadena Pops.
"With pops conducting, waving a stick is secondary — you don't need to go to a conservatory for years and years of formal training," said Zdunek. "It starts with being a really great musician and someone who has a great set of ears. You also need someone who has great charts or access to great charts, arrangements that have never been heard before or released before. Michael has sources of music I would venture to say almost nobody else has access to."
Feinstein had turned down other conducting overtures for lack of time — he averages 200 performing dates a year. But this opportunity felt different.
Recalling the chain of events that led to him to the post, Feinstein was momentarily in a subdued frame of mind during an otherwise lively interview at his Los Feliz home, a restored, four-story structure that was a Russian Consulate decades ago. It's a sunny setting in which to address somber events. The downstairs living areas unite furniture of a classic French style with items that reflect Feinstein's 20th century cultural preoccupations: a limited Warhol print — No. 1 in a series of 30 — of George Gershwin dominates one wall, while a 1950 award to Rosemary Clooney "For Outstanding Charm in Singing" is on a nearby table. This gilded tchotchke sits below a still life with fruit painting done by Clooney's longtime Beverly Hills neighbor, Ira Gershwin.
Musical influences aren't confined to design touches. At one point, George, one of two 11-year-old ginger-colored cats, strolls over while his bulkier sibling Ira sun patches under a nearby dining room table as Feinstein mused on life's strange turns.
"It was so shocking; I, like everyone else, had no sense it might be coming," recalled Feinstein, 56, referring to Hamlisch's death.
Rewind to late July 2012: Making his annual musical rounds across America's bigger outdoor summer stages, Feinstein had a stop with the Pasadena Pops, Hamlisch conducting. The gig went well, the two of them singing, quipping and, at one point, riffing on twin pianos set up face to face. Feinstein recollected a "fun time. They aren't all, you know. But any time out there with Marvin, though I was never 100% sure what he'd say or do, I enjoyed being part of it."
Then, terribly, the unexpected: Less than three weeks later, Hamlisch died. The official pronouncement was lung failure, stemming from respiratory arrest, hypertension and a lack of oxygen to the brain. (In April, Hamlisch's widow, Terre Blair, petitioned a Manhattan judge for the release of blood tests done before his death).
"When this call [to replace him] came in…" Feinstein chose his words carefully, "…it felt, in the oddest fashion, as if Marvin was connecting me to this orchestra. I wouldn't have been so presumptuous as to say it was meant to happen… but I know he loved working with this orchestra and I loved working with him and… if it weren't for these circumstances I would have never done it."
Feinstein turns from reflective reverie to assessing music-world politics.
"I am not unaware that in undertaking this, I would be taking away a job that someone else might be able to do well," said Feinstein. "I make a living performing, but in the pops world there are only so many positions out there — there may be people out there hating me for taking this job."
Zdunek may be a bit cavalier about the actual musical demands, but Feinstein determinedly has spent portions of the last year in self-described "conductor's school." As the calendar permits, he has been getting tutelage from his former musical director, Larry Blank.
"The more I learn, the more I feel I need to know," he said. "I'm not going to be conducting things like Mahler or Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony. This is material I know. Still, from watching many other conductors you find many different ways of communicating and that there are many different ways of conducting a passage. And … it's vexing."
One facet that intrigues and challenges Feinstein is something he believes can't be taught but can be found only through interaction with an orchestra.
"It's almost like a soul connection sort of thing — how to communicate the emotion or the sense of a piece of music that is not through technical skill. A lot of it is about connection [with the orchestra], facial expression, body movement."
If this sounds a little touchy-feely, it mirrors part of the definition of what makes a successful pops conductor, according to Keith Lockhart, maestro of the Boston Pops.
"You have to express feelings and convey the emotions built into the music to audiences in real time," said Lockhart. "It's a long-term skill and it will be interesting to see how Michael develops it since he clearly feels the music of the American Songbook so intently."
But Michael Feinstein, waving his arms in front of an orchestra with his back to ticket buyers, is not the same as Michael Feinstein, popular singer and pianist, front and center (concert-goers can rest a bit easy: He intends to sing and/or play a number or two at the piano, as well as provide his prototypical musicology travelogue through the songs as they are presented).
So the question lingers: Will Feinstein do this well? Three personal yardsticks of measurement are proposed:
Lockhart: "Michael's knowledge of American song from Stephen Foster on is one of a kind. No question there. But conducting takes time and he does so much already.... I hope time is his ally in pursuing this."
Feinstein: "My biggest concern going in is that I don't interpret the pieces the way I feel inside about them. To interpret them as good as they can be, that's my destination."
Zdunek, laughing: "As long as he doesn't fall off the podium, I think we'll be more than OK."
Pasadena Pops with Michael Feinstein conducting
When: Sat.: "Michael Feinstein's Songbook"; Sat., July 13, "MGM Movie Classics"; Sat., Sept. 7, "Michael Feinstein: The Gershwins & Me." Grounds open 5:30 p.m., concerts 7:30 p.m.
Where: Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia
Tickets: $35 to $105
Info: (626) 793-7172, http://www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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