Yes, there was a full orchestra on stage (making it something of a cabaret show on steroids), but Mr. Feinstein connected with the audience as if he were performing at a small club with only his Steinway. There even moments of surprising intimacy—remarkable, given that this was, after all, Powell Hall.
But then Mr. Feinstein is an impressive combination of cabaret artist and musical historian, specializing in what has come to be referred to as the “Great American Songbook” (or, as he jokingly referred to it, “the Rod Stewart Songbook”): the pop and theatre music that dominated American culture from the 1920s into the 1970s. He has this stuff in his blood, singing and playing it as easily as some of us speak. He talks about the songs, their creators, and the performers who introduced them as though they were his friends (a few of them actually were).
The program was pure mainstream songbook, from Berlin’s first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (with a slight lyrical alteration to make it less bellicose) to Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York”. Probably the least familiar numbers were Gershwin’s droll “By Strauss” (from the 1946 revue “The Show is On”) and Jerry Herman’s “I Won’t Send Roses” (a classic song of ambivalent love from “Mack and Mabel”, where it was sung by Robert Preston).
The performance of that latter song, by the way, yielded one of the afternoon’s classic cabaret moments. Mr. Feinstein accompanied himself at the piano and everything was flawlessly “in the moment” until the very end, when a bit of modulation went awry and he ended up singing the final note loudly instead of softly as the song clearly requires. Rather than brazen it out, he did what any good cabaret artist should do under the circumstances: he apologized, went back and re-did the ending perfectly.
That aside, the rest of the program was about as polished as anyone could wish. Mr. Feinstein is, of course, a charming performer and an engaging storyteller, liberally sprinkling the show with tidbits on the songs and their creators. He’s a strong singer, with a ringing head voice and smooth falsetto, equally at home belting out a medley of “Luck be a Lady” and “All I Need is the Girl” or crooning the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields classic “The Way You Look Tonight” in an arrangement based on the one Jobim did for Sinatra in 1964. He’s also an impressive pianist and got great backing from the symphony musicians under the baton of his music director Sam Kriger.
He’s also a great admirer of the work of George Gershwin (as am I), and even though he didn’t get around to a solid Gershwin set until the end of the second act, it felt like the spirit of the composer was never far away, especially when quotes from the “Concerto in F” popped up in both a flashy “big band” arrangement of “Brazil” (complete with impressive trombone and trumpet solos) and the bluesy intro to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” as well. His tribute to Gershwin included the arrangement of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” used in the 1936 film “Swing Time”, where it was sung by Fred Astaire. It lost the Oscar that year to “Sweet Leilani”, of all things, but the arrangement was Ira Gershwin’s favorite nevertheless.
Mr. Feinstein concluded the Gershwin segment by asking mothers in the audience to call out the titles of their favorite Gershwin tunes and then improvising a medley based on the requests. I suspect the medley would have ended with “Our Love is Here to Stay” even if nobody had suggested it, though. It was, after all, George Gershwin’s last song and writing the lyric for it pulled Ira out of the depression caused by his brother’s death. You couldn’t ask for a better way to end a tribute to the Gershwins.
Michael Feinstein’s appearance with the symphony was, in short, a very classy and entertaining way to spend the afternoon on Mother’s Day. My mom, who grew up with this music, certainly enjoyed it. Judging from the audience response, she was clearly in the majority.
Post-season activity at Powell Hall continues through June 22nd. Upcoming events include a pops concert featuring “Rhapsody in Blue” with Sarina Zhang at the keyboard and Ward Stare at the podium on Friday, May 18; a concert by the Youth Orchestra on Sunday, May 20; and “Bond and Beyond: 50 Years of 007” on Saturday, June 2. For more information, visit stlsymphony.org.
Complete song list:
Medley: “Luck Be a Lady” (Loesser) / “All I Need is the Girl” (Styne / Sondheim)
“I Concentrate on You” (Porter)
“I Wanna Be Around” (Mercer / Vimmerstedt)
“I Won’t Send Roses” (Herman)
“The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (Kern / Hammerstein)
“Somewhere” (Bernstein / Sondheim)
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Berlin)
“Once in a Lifetime” (Bricusse / Newley)
“The Way You Look Tonight” (Kern / Fields)
“I Love a Piano” (Berlin)
Medley: “When I Fall in Love” (Young / Heyman) / “My Foolish Heart” (Young / Washington)
“Fascinatin’ Rhythm” (Gershwin)
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (Gershwin)
Gershwin medley: “By Strauss” / “I Got Rhythm” / “Someone to Watch Over Me” / “Our Love is Here to Stay”
“For Once in My Life” (Miller / Murden)
“New York, New York” (Kander / Ebb)