January 19, 2020

A Song in His Heart

Singer-pianist-archivist Michael Feinstein’s new album, his first with a symphony orchestra, is all standards and all Jewish.

"Using all Jewish composers didn’t take effort," Feinstein said, describing his latest CD, "Michael Feinstein With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra" (Concord Records, $17.98), released in May. In the liner notes, Feinstein explains, "It’s an extraordinary fact that most of the major American popular song composers of the 20th century were, for some inexplicable reason, Jewish."

Backing Feinstein on the album, which features about 50 years’ worth of songs from theater, films and cabaret, is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which turned itself into the biggest of big bands to work with Feinstein. The singer recorded the songs in spring 2001 in Tel Aviv, during his very first trip to Israel.

Feinstein sees his collaboration with the IPO as a musical thread in the struggle for peace in the Mideast, pointing out that the orchestra has been involved in programs bringing together Arab and Jewish musicians. He is donating proceeds from the new CD to the Arab-Jewish youth organization Seeds of Peace.

"I feel that music is a healing modality that can help bring peace," Feinstein told The Journal, adding that one of the cuts on the album, "Somewhere," is an homage to its composer, Leonard Bernstein, who had a long association with the IPO and "represented ideals of peace."

Feinstein and the IPO had been scheduled to play the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 26, but their eight-city American tour was canceled by its promoters. The orchestra denied that it faced security and insurance problems when it announced in late July that the tour was "postponed," but subsequent stories in the Los Angeles Times and Variety cite concerns over security affecting ticket sales and ability to obtain insurance as reasons for the tour’s cancellation.

Feinstein, 45, learned to play piano by ear as a small child in Columbus, Ohio, and as a teenager was playing weddings and parties. As a kid, he favored the show tunes his parents listened to rather than the rock and teen pop choices of his peers.

Classic American songs from theater and film, Feinstein told a reporter in April, "resonate in a way other music does not. It is music that transcends time."

A New York Times review of a June performance at Carnegie Hall described Feinstein as both an acolyte and a peer of his musical heroes, which include the Gershwins, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, "conversing with his idols in a musical time warp."

After graduating from high school, he began playing piano bars around Columbus instead of continuing in school. At one point, he told The Journal, he went to his mother and said, "Aren’t you even going to ask me about college?"

"My parents were very supportive of my music," Feinstein said. "My love for music came from them; they are truly responsible for my career."

He moved to Los Angeles in 1976 at age 20, and the following year, met lyricist Ira Gershwin, then about 80 years old, through June Levant, widow of pianist, comic actor, and Gershwin intimate Oscar Levant. Feinstein had obtained June Levant’s phone number and called her after coming across some obscure recordings of her husband’s work in a used record store.

Well-versed in the music of Gershwin’s era, Feinstein was put to work cataloging phonograph records, but eventually became Gershwin’s musical assistant, organizing his papers and bringing the latter-day world of show music into his home before Gershwin’s death in 1983.

Gershwin introduced Feinstein to Liza Minnelli; he’d been best man at the wedding of Minnelli’s parents, Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland. Minnelli, in turn, made possible Feinstein’s first big club date at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in 1986, which began a stream of high-profile club and concert performances, recordings and film and television appearances that shows no sign of drying up.

Feinstein said he’s "very devoted to the Jewish community," though not religious. His parents sent him to Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue in Columbus; Feinstein said he didn’t much like the classes, which met in a dingy basement. He complained to his folks until his mother visited the classroom and said, "My God, it is that bad."

When Feinstein chose not to have a bar mitzvah, "it was more of a scandal in the neighborhood than it was to my parents," he said.

His Ohio roots and his eponymous New York nightclub, Feinstein’s at the Regency, notwithstanding, Feinstein is very much an Angeleno, with a home in Los Feliz. As a young man new to Los Angeles, he played piano at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda twice a week, and he still goes back occasionally.

"I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else," Feinstein said. "I feel very connected to Los Angeles, and I feel very connected to the Jewish community here."