Feinstein and St. Louis Symphony to showcase ‘Great American Songbook’

Michael Feinstein

By Marvin Glassman, Special To The Jewish Light

After an early start working as a music archivist for Ira Gershwin, 55-year-old Jewish singer/songwriter Michael Feinstein has dedicated his career to preserving and enhancing the artists from the early part of the 20th century, with special attention on his favorite composer, George Gershwin.

Feinstein will team with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to offer new interpretations of Gershwin’s work, among other noted composers of The Great American Songbook, in concert at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 13 at Powell Hall.

“Gershwin is the most talented, prolific composer of the 20th century, and his music is as fresh today as when he originally wrote it in the 1920s and 1930s,” said Feinstein in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

George Gershwin, the son of two Jewish immigrants from Russia, wrote more than 800 songs in his career, despite living only to age 38. He died of a brain tumor in 1937.

Feinstein will not only interpret Gershwin classics, such as “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Rhapsody In Blue” and “S’Wonderful” in concert, but will share anecdotes he researched on the many influences of Gershwin to his music, including his Jewish background.

“Gershwin was influenced by the Yiddish Theatre as he was with so many musical genres and created his own unique way of blending many cultures in his melodies,” said Feinstein. “‘S’Wonderful’ is written in a minor key, as is much Jewish music. The opening of ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ has a clarinet with the notes that seem to originate from klezmer.”

“We all know that Gershwin created ‘Porgy and Bess’ as an American opera, but few know that, had George lived longer, he was interested in creating a Jewish opera which unfortunately never happened,” added Feinstein.  

Through his work, Feinstein has toured all over the world and is especially proud of performing in Israel and working with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra on a CD released in 2000. He said he was particularly proud of performing for both Arab and Israeli children as part of the Israeli Orchestra’s Seeds of Peace Project.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Feinstein started performing at age 5 and decided to make music his career as a teen. His mother was a tap dancer and father an executive with the Sara Lee company. Feinstein worked with Ira Gershwin as his archivist from 1977 to his death in 1982.

“Being with Ira (Gershwin) every day not only was informative and joyful, but created my purpose in life. I live to preserve the music of the Gershwins and composers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter for younger audiences who may have never heard of them,” Feinstein said.

“The beauty of the songs of The Great American Songbook are powerful for all to enjoy.  These songs make life worth living,” he said.

Feinstein has blossomed as an ambassador of The Great American Songbook not only as performer, but as an entrepreneur as well. He opened up the cabaret club “Feinstein At The Regency” in both New York and Los Angeles in 1996, and is also artistic director of the Carmel, Indiana Performing Arts Center.  

Feinstein has shared his enthusiasm and knowledge of Gershwin and other composers by writing and hosting various television series on  “The Great American Songbook.” Currently, his 13-part series, “Song Journeys,” can be heard on National Public Radio through June.  

Feinstein has recorded three of his 22 CDs on Gershwin’s music and is currently working on a new book on the Gershwin brothers as well as a film on the famed duo.