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Michael Feinstein


Singer/pianist/composer/arranger/entrepreneur/musical archivist Michael Feinstein was a child prodigy who, at age 5, developed an interest in the piano and in show music and having heard a song once was able to play all manner of show tunes by ear. As a teenager, he performed at weddings and parties and upon graduating Eastmore High School in Columbus, Ohio, worked in local piano lounges. In 1976, Michael and his family moved to Los Angeles.

“I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in music. My earliest memories consist of having family gatherings which were always filled with music. As far back as I can recall there was always music in my life. I played the piano and sang because it felt good to do so; there were no professional aspirations involved. It was simply something that brought me tremendous pleasurable moments.”

While in Los Angeles, Feinstein had the good fortune to meet Oscar Levant’s widow who, in turn, introduced him to Ira Gershwin. It was the legendary Gershwin who hired Feinstein to organize his musical archives. Feinstein worked for the famed lyricist for seven years (until Gershwin’s death in 1983) and became his close confidante, in return for which Gershwin, who is considered the writer of the world’s most loved songs, introduced his archivist to many celebrities, some of whom helped Feinstein launch his own career. As Feinstein himself put it, “Meeting Ira (Gershwin) opened me to undreamed-of possibilities.”

The year was 1986 when Feinstein’s musical career was launched by Liza Minnelli. She asked Feinstein to join her at one of her New York City concerts. After his debut, Feinstein went on to perform on Broadway in a one-man show, Isn’t It Romantic: Michael Feinstein in Concert.

Feinstein’s talents may well have been stirred up by his family genes. “My dad, Edward, was a singer and a sales executive with the Sara Lee Corporation [no, he had nothing to do with that catchy jingle] and my mom, Maizie, was, and still is, a semi-professional tap dancer. She loves dancing and takes classes three days a week, which keeps her in fantastic physical shape.”

Feinstein, who finds joy and meaning in every song he sings, says that some of his early influences were Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Fats Waller, “whose recordings as a pianist and singer are so filled with inspiration and joy. I can never get enough of him,” he says reflectively.

Feinstein recently recorded his 20th album, Michael Feinstein With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The CD was recorded at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium and was the joint brainchild of Feinstein and his friend, conductor Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Music Director for Life.”

“I wanted to join forces with this wonderful orchestra. I loved the time I spent in Israel and hope to go back to help support the people who need us there. I went to Israel because I wanted to be there and it was so moving because the people I met were so grateful for anyone who stepped foot on their soil given the intense political situation. They kept telling me, ‘We’re so glad you came. Thank you.’ Their overwhelming appreciation sometimes made me feel uncomfortable because, in truth, it was I who should have been thanking them for their unbelievable display of hospitality and their selfless, daily acts of courage. Although the concert was in Tel Aviv, I traveled throughout the country. I was left with a great sense of yearning for better things for all the people I had the pleasure of meeting and with whom I felt a close sense of friendship and love.”

In an attempt to bridge the cultural and political gap, “The Israel Philharmonic has been involved in a solidarity program (Seeds of Peace) to bring together Arab and Israeli children to make music,” says Feinstein. “I had recorded an album with the Israel Philharmonic and that is when I became aware of the ensemble as an adjunct to the orchestra. The music was intricate and in order for them to have played so extraordinarily well, they must have rehearsed for a very long time previous to their New York appearance.”

Last year, Feinstein performed at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City with the 70-piece Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Included as part of the performance were the members of the Israeli-Arab ensemble consisting of members of the Israel Philharmonic and members of the Arab music community who, together, started the project for the purpose of unity since both Israeli and Arabic music are similar in many ways. “I was privileged to perform with this extraordinary ensemble of artists who were acting as ambassadors of peace,” says the boyish-looking Feinstein. “The people from the ensemble range from their 20s to their 60s, and they come from diverse places within Israel, Jordan and Palestine. It was a wonderful evening devoted solely to music with no talk of politics. The audience received the ensemble with unbridled adulation because the music was just marvelous. The experience left me wishing that this feeling of cooperation and friendship could be the way the world would react all the time.”

At times, Feinstein has described himself as “the kid from Columbus, Ohio.” Well, it’s safe to say that “the kid” has come a long way, baby! He currently has 20 CDs and performs more than 200 concerts a year. Two years ago, he opened his nightclub, Feinstein’s at the Regency, which is located in the elegant and trendy Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.

“I never dreamed that one day I would be opening a nightclub in Manhattan. To show how things have changed, he adds, “The name Feinstein’s is a name that would never have adorned the sign of an older establishment because Jewish ethnic was out. Now, it’s in!”

Feinstein’s unique ability of instinctively knowing what to do and when may be due in large measure to his liberal upbringing. “My family was always supportive of whatever I chose to do. As a teenager, I didn’t realize how extraordinary my parents were, but I now realize that they were extremely liberal in allowing me to pursue my own path. The best example is my wish not to be bar mitzvahed at the traditional age of 13. My family belonged to a conservative temple and were not particularly observant as regards religious dogma. They wanted all three of their children to have a Jewish education, which included knowledge of our heritage and Judaic traditions. However, they allowed us to observe our religion as we saw fit. They raised us in the manner they believed to be right, and then gave us the freedom to choose. Reflecting on past events, I guess I was the rebel, particularly when it came to religious issues.

“Although all of my friends were being bar mitzvahed, to me it seemed more a show for the parents than for the initiate. None of my friends understood the Hebrew words they were speaking, although they may well have understood the religious significance. I really didn’t see the need for my parents to go to either the trouble or the expense. They impressed upon me that being bar mitzvahed was an important Jewish tradition and I remember asking if it mattered when a person was bar mitzvahed. In other words, could I do it later on? When they said, ‘Yes,’ I said that if I changed my mind, I would let them know. My parents were satisfied with the status quo, but our friends and relatives were outraged. My parents said they understood their feelings but they would not force me to do anything I did not wish to do. This frame of reference, I think, was relatively rare for my generation, but its full significance hit me much later on in life.

Feinstein is often referred to as “America’s Musical Ambassador for his stellar tributes to the Gershwin brothers, as well as other composers. His evocative vocal phrasing, his talent and his casual stage persona have always earned him high praise from the critics worldwide.

Although Feinstein has his fingers in many pies, Concord Records is creating a new label for him, cleverly called “Feinery.” Of his new venture, the talented one says: “It will give me the opportunity to release recordings that aren’t mainstream, but important historically.”

Today, at age 46, his style has matured, “by virtue of the life experiences that I’ve had,” he says. “I try and create music that is not a flash in the pan. A CD I made more than 10 years ago, like Isn’t It Romantic, still sounds good today because it’s not contingent on passing fancies.”

Having done all that, what’s left? The question digested, the reply was almost immediate. “I just want to keep growing and deepening my connection with music. In the past, I’ve done several of my concerts on Broadway, but I would like to do something a little different; something with more staging, less of a concert and more of a concept in a different setting. I definitely do intend to do Broadway again and while I haven’t as yet decided when, one thing is certain, it will happen. I feel it is important to keep writing and creating more music at a time when we truly need it. Music is healing and significant not only as an art but as a means of creating a transformation.

There are several things which are paramount in Feinstein’s life: family, music and now heritage. “Like many, as I grow older, I have more appreciation for my heritage and my ethnic background. Going to Israel was for me just a wonderful experience.”

His latest project is Only One Life: The Songs of Jimmy Webb, exploring the songs of the great songwriter, best known for “Up, Up & Away,” “Didn’t We” and “MacArthur Park.” After two decades interpreting the songs of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood, Feinstein is focusing on a contemporary composer for the first time. Jimmy Webb, one of the most popular and enduring songwriters of the later 20th century, has countless Grammy Awards and #1 hits to his credit. This collaboration—with its roots in traditional standards but with a distinctively modern sensibility–marks the most contemporary recording of Michael’s career.

Michael recently returned from the first leg of his national tour with Jimmy. Only One Life is a song cycle of love, passion, hope and regret that features some of Jimmy’s most recognized songs, but also six premiere recordings. “Jimmy is the link between classic and contemporary songwriting,” Michael says. “He has the perfect combination of music and lyrics, intelligence and wit. Jimmy’s songs have been incredibly influential to his generation, and will be standards for the next.”

Sources: LifeStyles Magazine