Los Angeles Music Review: BIG BAND SWING! (Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena POPS in Arcadia)

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by Tony Frankel on June 24, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


No one can argue that Michael Feinstein has singlehandedly reinvigorated the American Songbook for the 21st century, but this beguiling raconteur is also a consummate showman who is so knowledgeable and adorable that you may just want to pinch his cheeks. This is why he is a perfect fit as principal conductor for the Pasadena POPS. While the opening concert of the season was a mixed bag, there were some smokin’ hot arrangements and vocals, especially from guest crooner Michael Andrew. In addition, Feinstein’s joy is so contagious that even some syrupy unbalanced Muzak-esque selections—and surprisingly strong-to-sadly shaky vocals from icon Marilyn Maye (who is, after all, 87)—didn’t hamper the enthusiastic crowd, which seemed pleased as punch to saunter down memory lane on a sultry summer night.

Pasadena Pops' Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein - POSTERIndeed, the fact that Feinstein isn’t a great conductor also had no bearing whatsoever on the overflow throng of doting fans who attended Big Band Swing! outdoors at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden last Saturday. That may be because many I saw in the crowd were around when the program’s selections could be heard for the first time on the radio.

Feinstein’s plusses are many: Not only does he have access to a vast array of musical compositions, but he is also an accomplished singer and pianist with a classy, cuddly, Jewish Mama’s Boy personality which is infectious (his mom was actually in attendance). His knowledge of all things Popular Music is equally an asset, as he effortlessly takes the audience on an anecdotal, explanatory, behind-the-scenes journey of a song’s origin.

Michael Feinstein in BIG BAND SWING! with the Pasadena POPS.But now that Feinstein has signed on as principal conductor through 2016, I am hoping that he will up the ante on his conducting. Even though instrumental soloists did a bang-up job celebrating the Big Bands of the Swing era (1930s and ‘40s), Feinstein has yet to add personality to the Pasadena Orchestra, which frankly could probably conduct itself under Concertmaster Aimee Kreston (many in the orchestra are studio musicians).

While he no longer conducts as though he were sawing wood, Feinstein still needs to work on bringing out one section over another, especially evident in the Ted Firth arrangements, which often added huge string sections that could overwhelm the Big Band sound, as in “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” Still, Feinstein’s specificity of detail behind the song’s genesis was terrific, the players were strong, and—as a bonus—composer Jerry Gray’s niece was the evening’s flutist (when Larry Blank conducted the encore to allow for Feinstein’s only vocals, joining Andrew and Maye, the orchestra was perfection).

Michael Andrew, Marilyn Maye, Michael Feinstein and Larry Blank (conductor) in BIG BAND SWING! with the Pasadena POPS.

In truth, the better the arrangements, the better the orchestra sounded. Michael Andrew, a splendid arranger who offered Bobby Darin-esque vocals, offered a swingin’, swelterin’ “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?”; a smooth “As Time Goes By” (with Tom Rizzo on guitar); and an awesome, conga-infused, super-hot “That Old Black Magic.” Less successful were arrangements by Firth and John Cacavas in the vein of classic MGM orchestral/swing film scores (“Well, Git It,” “Duke Ellington Tribute”).

Soloist Michael Andrew joins Michael Feinstein in BIG BAND SWING! with the Pasadena POPS.

The best non-vocalist selections came in the second half of the program. Three were TV theme songs that, incidentally, had been arranged by the composers themselves: Pete Rugolo’s “Theme from the Fugitive,” Morton Stevens’ “Hawaii Five-0,” and Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn.” These were followed by Nan Schwartz’ beautifully blended arrangement of “Green Eyes,” the 1929 popular song written by Adolfo Utrera and Nilo Menéndez, and recorded by Jimmy Dorsey in 1941. Nan—daughter of Willie Schwartz (who played lead clarinet with Glenn Miller) and Peggy Clark (who sang with her sisters as The Sentimentalists)—just happened to be in the house.

Soloist Marilyn Maye joins Michael Feinstein in BIG BAND SWING! with the Pasadena POPS.

I’m keeping my eye on some upcoming concerts—and so should you: On Aug. 1, Feinstein will be at the zenith of his powers, singing and playing piano while Larry Blank conducts the best of Frank Sinatra; on Aug. 22, two of America’s best cabaret vocalists—Ann Hampton Callaway and Denzal Sinclaire—join Feinstein to celebrate Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald; and on Sep. 12, it’s recommended you arrive hours early, because younger folks will surely be joining the regular crowd to see Broadway star and heartthrob Jeremy Jordan join Shelea Frazier and Mr. F for A Night at the Oscars!

Pasadena Pops - POSTER

photos courtesy of Pasadena POPS

Big Band Swing!
Pasadena POPS
Michael Feinstein, conductor
played June 20, 2015
Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden
301 N. Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia
for info and tickets to future events, call (626) 793-7172
or visit http://www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org/

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