Michael Feinstein’s lucky break

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Carol Sorgen
Singer and pianist Michael Feinstein recounts working with Ira Gershwin in his recent memoir, The Gershwins and Me. He will share those stories and his enthusiasm for the songs of Broadway and film known as “the Great American Songbook” in a program to benefit the Myerberg Center at the Lyric Theatre on May 9.
Photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein

On a summer day in 1977, 20-year-old Michael Feinstein had a life-changing encounter: he was introduced to Ira Gershwin, the 80-year-old lyricist brother of George Gershwin, the famous American composer who had died years earlier at the age of 38.

The present-day Feinstein, now 56, says he always felt like “an old soul,” even as a child growing up in the 1960s. From the time he was 5 and started playing piano by ear in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, Feinstein began listening to his parents’ recordings of Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Rosemary Clooney.

“While I couldn’t tell you the names of the hit songs on the radio, I was a kid who could rattle off the name of every hit song written by George and Ira Gershwin, as well as many arcane facts about their lives and career,” he writes in his critically acclaimed memoir, The Gershwins and Me.

Feinstein had met Ira Gershwin through June Levant, the widow of the concert pianist Oscar Levant, whom Feinstein calls “the greatest interpreter of Gershwin music of his generation.”

Ira and his wife Lee asked Feinstein to start working with them, and he spent the next six years, until Ira’s death, taking care of their archive of Gershwin memorabilia.

“Those formative years shaped the direction of my career and taught life lessons I never could have gotten in college, had I the grades to get in,” Feinstein told the Beacon in a telephone interview.

Of course, today Feinstein himself is a world-renowned entertainer — a pianist and singer, not to mention author, known for his interpretations of what has become known as “the great American Songbook.”

That Songbook comprises the best of American music — principally from Broadway, musical theatre and Hollywood musical film — from the 1920s to 1960. It includes dozens of songs of lasting popularity by such composers and lyricists as Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, to name just a few.

Learning from the masters

At Gershwin’s Beverly Hills home, Feinstein met many of the legendary members of Hollywood’s old guard, such as Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosemary Clooney, Roddy McDowall, Henry Mancini and many others. A number of them became his friends as well.

“It was as if I had arrived in Beverly Hills in the nick of time,” Feinstein recalled, “because only a few years later they were all gone....But they taught me much of what I know about performing, interpreting a song, and about why it’s important to pass on what we learn.

“They planted the seeds that have bloomed into a lifelong mission of sharing the classic era of music and culture by finding a way to make it relate to contemporary audiences.”

Ira Gershwin, in particular, was a great teacher and mentor who shared much that otherwise would have been lost long ago, Feinstein said, adding gratefully, “I have a very strong career because of this music.”

Many of the tunes are timeless, as seen by their continued popularity, even among today’s pop artists.

“I gain such joy seeing the music go on and on,” Feinstein writes in his book. “Whether it’s Lady Gaga singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” or hearing Beyonce sing “At Last,” I know I’m part of a tradition that will never die. And I was there to learn it from the masters.”

In 1995, Feinstein wrote an earlier memoir, called Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme. But he more recently came to realize he should capture those years with the Gershwins in a separate book.

“As time has evolved and I’ve seen changes in the world, I realized I needed to set down, in a somewhat more permanent form, stories I had learned firsthand, because otherwise they could disappear and get lost,” Feinstein said.

“Setting it down was cathartic,” he continued. “I enjoyed it — for the most part. It’s something that I think, like all creative processes for me, veered between wildly ecstatic moments and moments of frustration. But it’s something that, when completed, is really a wonderful feeling.”

Multifaceted career

Feinstein tries to inject all his personal appearances with humor and with stories that offer the audience a personal sense of the experiences that brought him to the career he has today.

And quite a career it is. Feinstein’s 200-plus shows a year have included performances at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and the Hollywood Bowl, as well as the White House and Buckingham Palace.

In addition to his live performances, Feinstein appears on numerous PBS television broadcasts. A new season of his show, “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook,” starts April 5 and will include never-before-seen footage of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Liza Minnelli, an extensive interview with Angela Lansbury, and footage from the original cast of Follies.

His previous series and CD celebrating the music of Frank Sinatra have garnered top ratings and numerous awards.

He has stayed current by collaborating with TV star Cheyenne Jackson of popular television shows “Glee” and “30 Rock,” while staying true to his musical roots with his recording of “Cheek to Cheek,” with Broadway legend Barbara Cook.

His recent recording, “We Dreamed These Days,” features the Carmel Symphony Orchestra; Feinstein co-wrote the title song with poet Maya Angelou.

In addition to his performances and recordings, in 2007 he founded the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, dedicated to celebrating the art form and preserving it through educational programs, master classes, and the annual High School Vocal Academy and Competition, which awards scholarships and prizes to students across the country.

He also serves on the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Board, an organization dedicated to ensuring the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America’s sound recording heritage.

Feinstein says he enjoys the many and varied aspects of his career. He finds singing before a live audience “exciting,” for example, because “the shared experience becomes a communal moment unlike any other means of performing,” he said.

But he also finds making recordings both “intimate and personal…one-on-one in an odd way because I’m singing to the microphone,” he said.” It’s like talking to an individual.”

Feinstein’s schedule remains jam-packed and includes a recording with Andre Previn coming out in April, as well as a regular series on NPR called “Song Travels,” now in its second year, which keeps him busy recording 39 shows a year. There’s also a series at New York’s Lincoln Center, and a film project about the Gershwins.

Baltimoreans will have a chance to hear and meet Feinstein when he gives a benefit performance for the Edward A. Myerberg Center on Thursday, May 9, at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. General admission is $50, but VIP tickets at $125 include a post-performance dessert reception and book signing with Feinstein.

Homes, sweet homes

Still “young at heart,” Feinstein has no intention of slowing down, despite the fact that he may not often get to kick back at the three locations he calls home.

These include: Indiana, where he spends part of the year serving as artistic director of the Center for the Performing Arts, a $170 million, three-theatre venue in Carmel, Indiana, which opened in 2011; New York, where his Manhattan nightclub, Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, presents the top talents of pop and jazz, and where Feinstein himself appears there for a sold-out holiday engagement every year; and Los Angeles, where he has scored the original music for the film Get Bruceand performed on such hit television series as “Better With You,” “Caroline in the City,” “Melrose Place,” “Coach,” “Cybill” and “7th Heaven.”

Yes, it’s hectic, but it’s not likely to change anytime soon. ”There’s not much reason to slow down,” said Feinstein. “I believe that everything ebbs and flows in life. I want to take the opportunities while they exist, to be able to do what I do, because nothing is forever.”

To see Michael Feinstein present “The Gershwins and Me” for the Myerberg benefit, order tickets online at www.ticketmaster.com, call (410) 547-SEAT, visit the Modell Lyric box office, call the Myerberg Center at (410) 358-6856 or email tickets@myerberg.org. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9. The Lyric is located at 140 W. Mt. Royal Ave.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the Myerberg Center in northwest Baltimore, which provides more than 125 enriching programs each year for area residents 55 and over, including classes in painting, sculpture, current events, technology and fitness. The center’s Eating Together program serves 12,000 meals a year.

The event will also honor local philanthropist and long-time supporter of the Myerberg Center, Sandra R. Hittman, for her service to the community.

For more information, visit www.myerbergseniorcenter.org or call (410) 358-6856.

Additional reporting by Barbara Ruben.

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