Not only have Jewish composers and lyricists made an indelible mark on American music, they also have shown that they know their way around a Christmas tune.
When multiple-Grammy-nominated singer Michael Feinstein performs holiday season concerts, he always highlights the yuletide contributions of Jewish composers such as Irving Berlin (who wrote “White Christmas”), Felix Bernard (“Winter Wonderland”), Johnny Marks (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and Walter Kent (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”).
Known as the ambassador of the Great American Songbook, Feinstein has served as the Pasadena Symphony’s principal pops conductor and has launched a pops series at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in Palm Beach, Fla. He is the author of “The Gershwins and Me,” and serves as artistic director of The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind.
Feinstein, who will perform “A Michael Feinstein Holiday Celebration” at Cal State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center on Dec. 8, recently spoke to the Jewish Journal by phone.
Jewish Journal: What are some of your favorite Christmas songs?
Michael Feinstein: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is my favorite Christmas song, and that was written by Hugh Martin, who was a Seventh-day Adventist. So, he broke the Jewish rule. But that is my favorite because the construction of the music is glorious and the lyric is heartfelt and genuine.
A song [co-written] by Sammy Cahn called “The Secret of Christmas” is a favorite, although it’s lesser known. Of the more familiar ones, “White Christmas” is a song that is ubiquitous for good reason, because it is a brilliant song and, happily, I’ve never gotten tired of singing it. “The Christmas Song,” aka “Chestnuts Roasting,” is a favorite.
“I don’t think anyone wants to hear a Jew sing hymns — unless it’s Barbra Streisand.”
Those songs all have lyrics of some depth. The Christmas songs that wallow in mistletoe and sleigh bells and reindeer are of less interest because, emotionally, they’re light and frothy. But there’s only so far you can go emotionally in interpreting something like that. I do love the Jerry Herman song “We Need a Little Christmas.” Again, that’s a superior lyric. I have sung “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” but that, to me, is an example of a song that is really more for children than for larger audiences
JJ: What about some of the hymns and religious Christmas songs?
MF: They’re pretty, but I don’t think anyone wants to hear a Jew sing hymns — unless it’s Barbra Streisand. Her Christmas album was beautiful. But I think it’s best for me to stick to what I do best, which is really interpreting a substantial lyric.
JJ: At what point in your career did you decide to make holiday songs part of your professional repertoire?
MF: There was not a conscious decision. As a performer, I have to perform what pleases the audience. And people at the holiday times wanted to hear the songs. So I sang them from my earliest days in piano bars.
JJ: As a student of music, did you enjoy discovering the history of some of these holiday songs?
MF: I’ve always been fascinated with the history of everything I sing. Knowing the background, knowing something about the writers, knowing the year and the context of the songs have always been important to me. It has always informed the way I sing a song. Figuring out how to perform a song stylistically, what to do with it and how to retain its freshness for contemporary audiences all stem from that behind-the-scenes approach to the music.
JJ: You will be performing in New York on Christmas. Do you try to seek out wintery venues for holiday performances?
MF: Having grown up in Ohio, where it snowed relentlessly in the wintertime, I have no desire to experience more snow. I used to spend every Christmas with Rosemary Clooney, who was one of my favorite people and with whom I was very close. That’s the only time that Christmas had a greater significance for me, personally.
JJ: For the Valley Performing Arts Center show, will it be peculiar to be singing about snow and frost in what will likely be 80-degree Northridge weather?
MF: Well, that’s why Irving Berlin wrote the verse of “White Christmas” [that goes] “The sun is shining, the grass is green / The orange and palm trees sway / There’s never been such a day / In Beverly Hills, LA / But it’s December the 24th / And I’m longing to be up north.” That verse didn’t fit in the film “Holiday Inn.” There would have been no place for it, but for the exploration of the song itself, he wrote the song in California and he wrote that verse I’m sure while he was experiencing the sunshine of this place.
JJ: What should people expect from the Northridge performance?
MF: It’s going to be a fun show. The shows are interactive with the audience. They’re certainly, emotionally, quite varied, in that I do a lot of celebratory songs. But I also do a lot of things intimately at the piano, including some of my favorite ballads.
The shows are not only informative but humorous, because, to me, being able to do what I do is always a celebration. It is always something for which I am deeply grateful, and I never take for granted that people are present in those seats. So, I’m looking forward to it.
“A Michael Feinstein Holiday Celebration” will be performed at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Valley Performing Arts Center on the Cal State Northridge campus. For more information, visit