In an era where interchangeable and mediocre bubblegum pop music reigns supreme on the radio, it’s hard to believe that less than a century ago two brothers, George and Ira Gershwin, were the ‘it’ boys of popular music. With George’s complex yet melodically catchy musical compositions and Ira’s thought-provoking and creative lyrics, they were untouchable forces in the industry.
Their compositions have withstood the test of time and are popular even today, thanks in part to the award-winning musician Michael Feinstein. Lucky attendees at the Strathmore Gala event on Saturday night had a chance to not only take a trip back on memory lane to a time when music ‘meant’ something, but to also experience the musical force that is today’s premier interpreter of the Gershwin songbook.
Unlike most of today’s standards singers, Feinstein has a personal connection to the irreplaceable duo. Following George’s far too early death in the 1937, his brother Ira continued to collaborate with some of the world’s greatest musicians like Kurt Weill and remained active on the music scene until his death in 1983. In 1977, six years before Ira’s passing, a young Michael Feinstein was introduced to the great lyricist and became his assistant. This unique experience has undoubtedly shaped the man Feinstein has become today and underpins his desire to continue to share the Gershwins’ remarkable music.
Although this personal connection is one of the ingredients that makes Feinstein’s take on the Gershwin hits so irresistible, his entertaining concert at Strathmore – which also featured candid stories about the Gershwins – demonstrated that it’s not the only one.
With musical direction by Ted Firth (an accomplished pianist in his own right), and backed by a magnificent band with brass musicians aplenty, Mr. Feinstein lent his marvelous piano skills, strong jazzy voice, and perhaps most impressive, his nearly unmatched song interpretation skills to the Gershwin classics. Technically proficient and emotionally connected to the material, he more than proved he’s worthy of all of the accolades that have been bestowed upon him.
Put succinctly, it was one of the best concerts I have seen in years.
The nearly ninety minute performance was jammed packed with known and lesser known Gershwin brother hits from their stage musical outings (Of Thee I Sing, Lady Be Good, Funny Face, and Porgy and Bess for starters) and more. Feinstein also paid tribute to the songs that Ira wrote following his brother’s death with the likes of Kurt Weill.
Although it would be impossible to describe every highlight – let’s just say there were no lowlights – several numbers stood out for me.
Feinstein took on some of the pair’s best known songs about love, many of which were written for their good friend Fred Astaire to perform. Following an adorable personal story about actually meeting Mr. Astaire for the first and only time (through – of all people – Ginger Rogers) and beginning what he called a ‘non-relationship’ with the song and dance man, Feinstein displayed tender and contemplative vocals on snippets of “S’Wonderful,” “Funny Face,” and “They Can’t Take that Away from Me” and showed off his playful side with “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Feinstein’s admiration for Astaire’s performance style was evident in these numbers, but he also put his own unique, jazzy spin on them.
Although the hit “Swanee” – which plays off of Southern stereotypes – may have, as Feinstein noted, haunted George until his deathbed, Feinstein’s endlessly energetic performance of this number proved that no matter how possibly offensive the lyrics are, the music is the very definition of interesting yet catchy. Likewise, his performance of Ira’s patter song “Tchaikovsky (And Other Russians)” – written with Kurt Weill and first performed by Danny Kaye in Lady in the Dark – highlighted Ira’s knack for lyric writing and gave the audience a feel for Feinstein’s humorous side.
The vocal highlight of the night, however, came in the form of Porgy’s third act aria in Porgy and Bess, “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess.” Most often Feinstein is praised for his remarkable piano playing (and he certainly displayed it at Strathmore with “Fascinating Rhythm/I Got Rhythm” and more), but in this number he showed that he has the technical singing chops to rival the best in the business. In an instant he became Porgy longing for his unexpected love. His textured vocals – a shift from the lighter, jazzier style he uses in his other Gershwin numbers – were filled with palpable emotion while still being technically on point.
My suggestion? If you ever have a chance to see Mr. Feinstein live, go. Just go.
Michael Feinstein: The Gershwins and Me was a one-night only concert on Saturday, April 20, 2013 at The Music Center at Strathmore.
Missed it? Enjoy this.