Spring is here and with it gala season: that time-honored tradition wherein arts organizations close out their season with a celebrity affair intended to highlight their work and refill their coffers.
Of all the gala’s taking place this month, none boasts a more exciting headliner than Strathmore. On May 12th, the arts center in North Bethesda, Maryland will showcase performer, cabaret owner, and five-time Grammy nominee Michael Feinstein.
Feinstein, whose advocacy for American standards (think Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) has earned him the unofficial title “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” will perform at the gala to close out his year-long “Feinstein Series” partnership with Strathmore.
I spoke to Feinstein by phone and asked him what it means to him to have been given such an auspicious title as Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.
His surprising reply came with a laugh: “Honestly,” his voice twinkled, “it means nothing to me.” “I mean, I get the gist of it, in that I have embraced this music throughout my career, but I’m certainly not the only one who has kept this music alive. It has been the meat of many singers over many generations, including contemporary performers who often dip into these classic songs and include them in their repertoire.”
Of course, Feinstein is being modest. Sure, others sing these tunes, but how many share his passion and resolve for preserving America’s musical heritage? How many other musicians act as a living link, carrying these songs from past to future generations, using their musical chops and intellectual determination to preserve America’s musical heritage?
As a recent college graduate, Michael Feinstein was introduced to an 80-year-old Ira Gershwin. This fortuitous meeting led to a six-year collaboration in which Feinstein cataloged unpublished George and Ira Gershwin sheet music and recordings, preserving countless orchestrations and turning young Feinstein into a walking encyclopedia of Gershwin knowledge. “Ira taught me fundamentally how to interpret these songs,” Feinstein told me, “but he also gave me a great sense of their history and importance. It was through his mentorship that I was able to define a part of who I was artistically.”
Since then, Feinstein has recorded albums (five of which earned Grammy nominations) featuring the music of the Gershwins, Jerry Herman, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Webb, and others. His famed nightclubs showcase the talents of Broadway’s leading stars. The Library of Congress appointed him to its newly formed National Recording Preservation Board, and he has founded The Great American Songbook Foundation, which features a museum for music memorabilia and a summer camp to introduce the American Songbook to new generations.
How do you define what goes into the Great American Songbook, I wondered? Is it subjective? Are there set criteria?
“Well, it’s not up to me. To me, number one, what I call The Great American Songbook is ever evolving. There is no cap on where it ends because there are songs being created today that will potentially become a part of the Great American Songbook. It is time that determines it. In twenty years, if collectively we are still singing those songs, and they are known to everyone as a common reference the way we now know Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” or “White Christmas,” then that becomes part of the songbook.”
Feinstein wasted no time explaining why he chose to partner with Strathmore this year: “Strathmore is a place to be tremendously admired, lauded and supported for its work in the community. I have a deep appreciation for the organization and of course the physical venue, which is remarkable. It’s one of the great spaces in which to perform.”
The Strathmore gala is the culmination of a year-long partnership between Feinstein and Strathmore, one that began in October when Feinstein performed at Strathmore’s AMP venue, an intimate nightclub of 200 seats not dissimilar to Feinstein’s/54 Below, his newest New York nightclub. Tony nominee Laura Osnes (Bandstand, Cinderella), who performed as Strathmore’s first Feinstein guest artist earlier this year, will join Feinstein onstage on May 12th.
The arts are so fragile and so needed these days that any organization that is doing the work that Strathmore is, to keep the arts alive and introduce the arts to new generations, must be supported.” – Michael Feinstein
Having frequented Feinstein’s/54 Below, as well as its precursor, the elegant Feinstein’s at the Regency, I knew Michael Feinstein to be a consummate designer of nightclubs. “It takes time to learn what the room itself wants and supports because every physical space has its own essence or personality,” Feinstein told me of designing some of America’s leading cabaret spaces. “But the ultimate goal, of course, is that when someone walks into the space they go ‘Wow! I love this space! It feels great!’ ”
Feinstein is also an avid collector of musical orchestrations and memorabilia.
“I have a dedicated 2500-square-foot office in Hollywood that is floor to ceiling music recordings, orchestrations, and things that might have gotten lost. For example, I have Peter Allen’s music library. I have Andy Williams’ orchestrations and works by Nelson Riddle and Billy May. I often use and loan these things to other singers because it is the greatest work of people who created art that must not get lost. It all ties into what I do to help keep this music alive and present it to new generations so they will use it as inspiration for whatever new things they create.”
Michael Feinstein/Strathmore Annual Spring Gala (featuring Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes) performs on Saturday, May 12th, 2018, at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, Maryland. For the box office, call (301) 581-5100.
For tickets to the gala reception, dinner, and concert, click here.
For tickets to Michael Feinstein’s concert only, click here. All concert attendees are invited to the FREE jazzy Gala After-Party with drinks, desserts, and live music.