Strathmore Spring Gala
Saturday, May 12
Michael Feinstein in concert
Cocktails, 5 p.m.
Three-course dinner, 6:15
Concert, 9 p.m.
Gala patron tickets: $1,250
Concert only: $45-130
Music Center at Stratmore
5301 Tuckerman Lane
North Bethesda, Md.
Great American Songbook stalwart Michael Feinstein is at the Strathmore this weekend to headline its annual Spring Gala.
On Saturday night, the long-out crooner will sing along with Broadway singer Laura Osnes and several alums of the Strathmore’s artist-in-resident program.
The gala is a capstone event in the Strathmore’s year-long programming partnership with Feinstein in which they’ve collaborated to “spotlight torchbearers of Great American Song.” Feinstein spoke to the Blade by phone this week from his home in Indiana. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How is 2018 treating you?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Really great in some ways and in other ways, not so great. I broke my nose in January and I had a hemorrhage on my vocal cord but that’s all in the past and I’m feeling hale and hearty so I like to think I got through the most dramatic part and the rest should be smooth sailing.
BLADE: How did you break your nose?
FEINSTEIN: I walked into an impeccably polished plate of glass.
BLADE: Vocal cord stuff is really scary for a singer. Are you any worse for the wear?
FEINSTEIN: Evidently not. I did a symphony concert yesterday and two of my Lena Horne shows at Lincoln Center and everything seems to be full steam ahead so I’m very grateful and lucky I guess. All is good.
BLADE: What do you have planned for the Strathmore?
FEINSTEIN: It’s gonna be a fun night because, of course, it’s their gala and I love being associated with the Strathmore because it’s such a great venue to perform in. … The program will be with a 17-pice big band and the musical director is Tedd Firth who is one of the great jazz pianists and arrangers of our time. So it’ll be a celebration of American popular song including, of course, some Gershwin and then I’m gonna do a Sinatra medley that’s just a swinging, fun thing. Then Laura Osnes is a special guest. She’ll be doing some songs and we’ll be doing a duet together …. so it’ll be a fun, celebratory, rich musical experience I think.
BLADE: Why do you work to find young people to take up the cause of American standards? To your knowledge, does anything like that happen in other genres of music?
FEINSTEIN: Well, for a number of years I’ve been mindful of the fact that any art or music only stays alive if there are audiences for it and people who are educated in it and people who bring it to the attention of others and because we live in a time when there is so little arts education in schools, it’s up to all of us who care about it to do what we can to preserve it and bring it to the next generation. … The arts are incredibly transformative. They change our lives and it’s an essential part of what makes life livable.
BLADE: But why do some genres need this more than others? You think of Motown or any classic rock and nobody really has to work to keep it alive. Are you aware of similar efforts for polka or Dixieland or any other type of music more popular in yesteryear?
FEINSTEIN: Well certainly the American songbook needs it because the more people who learn about it, it becomes part of their lives and they’ll share it with others. A lot of contemporary artists do American songbook songs in their sets. It’s not like it exists in a vacuum. I remember when Lady Gaga sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” on a show. Many artists sing these songs and many thousands of artists have sang “Summertime.” So to me it’s always about making people more aware of it.
BLADE: You’ve done so many albums. Which was the hardest to sequence?
FEINSTEIN: It’s always challenging because you have a bunch of songs and then you have to think about which order makes the most sense. I like to think of it like telling a story like a play or a movie. It can be tough but I don’t remember one being especially more difficult than another. I’ve made many different types of albums and they all present their own challenges.
BLADE: Does sequencing sometimes affect arrangements and transitions?
FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. There are times I’ve changed the beginning of a track or cut part of it or extended it. Also the time between tracks is significant, but of course a lot of people don’t listen to music sequentially anymore, they pick and choose in whatever medium they use so … in some ways it’s a lost art.
BLADE: Do you keep in touch with Cheyenne Jackson? Have you seen any of his TV stuff? (Feinstein and Jackson released a duet album in 2014)
FEINSTEIN: Yes, I am in touch with Cheyenne. We performed together about, oh, four-five months ago and he wants to do more musical performances but his acting career keeps him well occupied. He’s a wonderful human being and Jason, his husband, as well. They’re a great couple and he’s a major talent. He’s one of the finest voices of our time. He’s got extraordinary range and versatility and, of course, charisma. He’s deeply gifted and just a nice person to be around.
BLADE: When we last spoke in 2015, you mentioned a multi-CD project you were working on but couldn’t say much about. What was that and is it still in the works?
FEINSTEIN: I was working on recording the complete songs of George Gershwin, which is like 800 published songs, and that’s what I was starting to embark on. … We decided against it for various reasons. … The more we explored it, the more we realized it was more interesting as an idea than it would have been in execution. But I’m doing a Gershwin country duets album now and it’s very exciting. Right now I’m working on a track with Dolly Parton and we’re going to be doing a track soon with Brad Paisley and that’ll be tremendous fun to put together.
BLADE: How often do the holy grails in your genre turn up? Is it fairly uncommon?
FEINSTEIN: Well things do turn up from time to time. (There are) Bing Crosby/George Gershwin demos from 1930 or 1931 that have never turned up but they might. I know of the existence of one Gershwin recording that I haven’t been able to get my hands on yet but I’m working on it. And sometimes things turn up that we didn’t even know existed, which is fun. I recently found some other Crosby recordings that were fun to discover from radio and a number of years ago, I discovered a bunch of lost Crosby tracks. Actually I’m a trustee of the Judy Garland estate and I just found about a dozen recordings of her from the 103-s that were part of her own record collection that were pretty extraordinary performances that, for the most part, have never been heard. So now the trust is figuring out the best way to release them. … But it’s always thrilling to find things like that.
BLADE: You’ve talked about rescuing scores from dumpsters. How did you happen to be in the right place at the right time?
FEINSTEIN: I have to ascribe it to karma or luck or fate, if you will. I had the experience a number of times of stumbling upon something right before it was slated for destruction even though my timing sometimes has been off. A couple years ago, I just missed gaining possession of an entire office full of music. When I went to collect it, I was told it been destroyed the day before. So my timing hasn’t always been perfect.
BLADE: Why was Hollywood so cavalier with its history years ago?
FEINSTEIN: Because the thing that mattered to Hollywood was the film itself, not the ancillary products such as scores or whatever was used to make the finished film. They didn’t understand the importance or value of the music so it was jettisoned. There are very few studios that kept their scores. Warner Brothers did for the most part. Fox kept a lot of them and Paramount did but the big destruction, of course, is MGM thanks to a man named James Aubrey who very specifically destroyed those assets and many others. They’re businesses, not museum or archives. They don’t exist to preserve, they exist to make money and if they don’t make money from something, they don’t consider it valuable, not understanding that there was not only financial value in these things but also cultural and historical value. … But that’s the way of the world.
BLADE: Is it possible to recreate a score from a recording? Is that even a thing?
FEINSTEIN: It does work but only if the person doing it has the expertise to accomplish it. There are people who’ve done it and done lousy jobs. Then there’s people like John Wilson in England who with a couple associates has impeccably restored scores that are exact. But the number of people on the planet who can do that is extremely limited. Probably no more, and I’m speaking generously, than five or six. … It’s possible but it’s very difficult.
BLADE: It has ebbed, but there was a period where many pop artists — Joni Mitchell, Cyndi Lauper, of course Rod Stewart — were releasing standards albums. Did you hear very many of them? Which was your favorite?
FEINSTEIN: I liked some of the arrangements on Joni Mitchell’s (“Both Sides Now,” 2000). I remember years ago, Annie Lennox did an album on which she recorded a Harry Warren song called “Keep Me Young and Beautiful” from 1932 (on 1992’s “Diva”). I actually think it’s more fun to discover an old standard in the midst of a pop album. Like I remember as a kid, I discovered this Steely Dan album “Pretzel Logic” and on it was a song called “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” an instrumental, which it wasn’t until years later that I discovered they did it on guitar and pop instruments but it was an exact copy of a 1928 Duke Ellington recording. So that’s always a kick.
BLADE: You met so many cool people of the 20th century. Did you ever by chance meet Kate Smith and how do you think her recordings of the standards have held up?
FEINSTEIN: Kate Smith is one of the great underestimated singers from today’s perspective. She was a dazzling talent. I did not meet her but she had a unique and formidable legacy because she was such a huge star on the radio going back to the 1930s and she had a tremendous recorded output that started in 1926 and ended 50 years later. She could sing just about anything and when she started making pop records in the ‘60s, mainly with Peter Matz, who was at the same time working with Barbra Streisand, some of them were great and some were mawkish because some of the more psychedelic songs didn’t translate well to her. But when she took some of the Broadway material, she was incomparable. Like her recording of “If He Walked Into my Life” from “Mame” is fantastic. Her recording of “What Kind of Fool Am I” from her live Carnegie Hall album is dazzling. If you watch on YouTube some of her TV appearances from the ‘70s, she sings a lot of these songs tremendously well. One of my favorites is “You and Me Against the World,” which is like a three-act play the way she sings it. It just tears your heart out.
BLADE: Why do some great figures from those years — Garland, Elvis, whomever — hold up, yet people like Kate Smith is a good example, who were equally well known at the time, you mention them to a millennial and you get a blank stare?
FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, Garland and Presley had volatile and tragic lives. A lot of people you mention Judy Garland, they say, “Oh, she was such a mess.” A lot of people who know the name, don’t necessarily know anything about her art.
BLADE: So you’re saying we have a macabre fascination with tragedy and somebody who had a nice, stable life, for whatever reason, that doesn’t capture the public imagination nearly so well?
FEINSTEIN: Sort of, yes.
BLADE: How do you like the acoustics at the Strathmore?
FEINSTEIN: Oh, it’s sensational. It really is one of the great performing venues. That’s something that really cannot be planned. Of course there’s a multi-million dollar industry of acoustic science but even with all that, there’s another unknowable factor. … I’ve been in brand new buildings that are supposed to be state of the art and they just don’t work. The Strathmore has the gratifying combination of being tremendously opulant and beautiful and comfortable and it creates a connection for the audience and the performer that’s unique and special. It’s a real jewel and a place to be treasured.
BLADE: What’s the gayest tchotchke or memento in your home?
FEINSTEIN: Oh golly. Well, there are so many, how do you choose? (laughs) I have a lot of Judy Garland mementos and I have things from Liza. Let me think. When Terrence and I got married (in 2008), which was in our home, Liza went into my office, which is in my house, and on one of the doors it has a name tag that says Mr. Feinstein that I probably took from a dressing room, so it’s on a closet door and it looks like an entrance to a room. She wrote on it “not anymore” and her name and the date. I said, “What’s that?” And she opened the door and said, “Don’t you get it? In the closet — not anymore,” because that was the date of our marriage. I guess that would be pretty gay.