The excitement is building in Montgomery County as the Houston Symphony prepares to open its new season at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion later this month. But I got a wonderful sample of musical delights to come while attending this week’s opening of the Exxon Mobil Pops with Michael Feinstein. The orchestra has never sounded better; and energetic conductor, Andrews Sill, was every inch the equal of the fine musicians in his charge.
The orchestral excellence was on full display as the program opened with the excitement and many moods of Nelson’s vibrant and colorful “Savannah River Holiday.” A thrilling medley from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” followed. Crisp castanets accented a lush “I Feel Pretty.” There were gentle rhythms for a sublime “Maria.” The grand sweep of “Something’s Comin’” led into an exquisite “Tonight,” and a near-religious experience with “One Hand, One Heart.” The very satisfying segment concluded with a jazzy “Cool,” and a high-energy “America.”
Leroy Anderson’s bright and gay “Serenata” was beautifully performed with all its seductive Latin flavors, and a Bruce Chase arrangement titled “San Luis Samba” brought pulsing and exotic rhythms to W.C.Handy’s “St.Louis Blues.”
Next it was time for the main event as talented singer and pianist, Michael Feinstein joined the orchestra on stage to prove why many consider him to be a leading guardian of the American popular song. Assisted by his own conductor/arranger, John Oddo, Feinstein would captivate the audience in song for the remainder of the evening. A soft and low-key start to “Birth of the Blues,” quickly escalated to show both the piano prowess and surprising vocal power of this diminutive yet extraordinary artist. His clean vocal lines continued in a very smooth “On A Clear Day.” With his youthful good looks the experienced singer seemed like a young boy who had dropped down from some other planet to enchant us. In his masterful and touching, “Best Friends,” he projects the poetry with sheer perfection.
Feinstein began Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in a near whisper, and then used his remarkable vocal range and dazzling keyboard artistry to jazz things up for a thrilling conclusion with the brilliant orchestra. Then, with a gracious nod to composer Victor Young, there were the restful sweetness of “When I Fall in Love,” and the bursting romance of “My Foolish Heart.” For pure fun there was an audience sing-a-long with a Groucho Marx favorite, the Arlen/Harburg tune, “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.” Then our star spoke affectionately of his friendship with Frank Sinatra, and dedicated his knockout rendition of Cy Coleman’s “The Best is Yet to Come,” to Old Blue Eyes.
Feinstein’s close association with George and Ira Gershwin stemmed from his rare opportunity, at the age of 20, to spend six years as Ira Gershwin’s assistant, thus having rare access to the brothers’ vast body of music. With just his own accompaniment on piano, Feinstein showed his great skill with the Gershwin songbook during a medley that included a soft and embracing “Embraceable You,” a warm “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a bright “’S Wonderful,” and a cheerful “Who Cares?”
The segment closed with Feinstein’s touching rendition of Ira’s tribute to his late brother, George, in “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
The artist described with admiration the efforts of a Mid-East youth group called “Seeds of Peace,” which brings together young people of all mid-eastern backgrounds in a quest for true peace in that troubled land. In dedication he then sang the Bernstein/Sondheim song, “There’s A Place For Us,” and when he sang the words “We’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving,” the message was crystal clear for this war-torn world. In a similarly touching vein, Feinstein sang the Jimmy Webb title tune of his new album, “Only One Life,” and dedicated it to all those now putting their lives on the line to defend America. I predict we have not heard the last of this moving tribute to the importance of each human being.
A rousing finale of “I Love A Piano,” prompted Feinstein to joke, “I’m in therapy about it!” Thank goodness the therapy has not deterred this gifted musician from tinkling those ivories and singing those great American songs.
(The Courier 4.11.04)
(The Villager 4.15.04)