LENOX -- On the eve of his return to Tanglewood after a triumphant season-ending Boston Pops appearance last summer with Betty Buckley, Christine Ebersole and surprise guest Liza Minnelli, the vocalist, pianist and popular music historian Michael Feinstein is keenly anticipating his collaboration tonight with the Pops and its longtime conductor, Keith Lockhart.
On the phone from his Manhattan residence, the flamekeeper for the Great American Songbook emphasized the "wonderful symphonic arrangements" to be featured. Included are standards like George and Ira Gershwin’s "Strike Up the Band," classics by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Vincent Youmans, and a tribute to Frank Sinatra "that’s becoming iconic" -- all designed to "show off the brilliance of the Boston Pops," he said.
Feinstein’s guest performers are Broadway star Faith Prince, a Tony winner for her role as Miss Adelaide opposite Nathan Lane in the acclaimed 1992 revival of "Guys and Dolls" and stage, screen and TV actor Cheyenne Jackson of "Glee" and "30 Rock" fame.
He said he’s "excited by the experience of working with Keith" while avoiding the pitfalls he has witnessed at some pops concerts elsewhere -- "so often, singers bring arrangements that are boring to the audience."
Feinstein, 56, recently embarked on his own podium career as successor to his close friend, the late, lamented composer-conductor Marvin Hamlisch, at the helm of California’s Pasadena Pops.
Acknowledging "some nerves" ahead of his first-ever conducting gig on June 1, Feinstein said "it was certainly challenging, a little daunting, but it turned out well" and he’ll be leading four concerts per season there as principal conductor under a three-year contract.
According to Los Angeles Times critic Richard Ginell, "he is obviously learning the ropes; his motions are pretty much by-the-instruction-book. But it must be said that the Pasadena Pops played better for the rookie Feinstein than it did for the experienced Hamlisch in the latter’s first concert with the orchestra two years ago."
As Feinstein himself stressed, "it was certainly challenging, there’s much more than just conducting Š choosing music worthy of attention, rehearsing to a fare-thee-well, putting together a show and speaking to the audience."
But he also worked with several teachers "to make sure I had experience conducting before the actual engagement." Feinstein hired an orchestra for practice sessions, with a coach close at hand.
Feinstein remains one of the busiest personalities in show business, typically performing close to 200 nights of the year, though recently he has dialed back a bit to work on a stage musical, "The Gold Room," about the deeply troubled life of socialite and heiress Barbara Hutton, who died virtually penniless in 1979.
This past spring, he released his 34th CD, "Change of Heart: The Songs of Andre Previn," accompanied on piano by the now-frail but much-admired composer and conductor. "We worked together very closely," Feinstein recalled. "I wanted to preserve his songwriting, since his popular songs are not as well known to the general public as his other work. It was very exciting to collaborate with one of the era’s geniuses of music who’s also a great human being."
After three seasons of the well-received PBS series, "Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook" [now out on DVD], the public TV network is in the market for more. "I’m delighted they want to continue the relationship and create another show for me," he said.
He plans to open a new Manhattan nightclub by next spring to continue showcasing prominent popular artists as he did for 14 years at Loew’s Regency Hotel.
Amid all this activity, his main mission remains preserving the legacy of American popular song through his Carmel, Ind.-based Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Initiative, founded in 2007 to hold educational programs, master classes and the annual High School Vocal Academy and Competition, which awards scholarships and prizes.
He is also artistic director of the new Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, just north of Indianapolis.
With audiences consumed by rock, hip hop, electronica and other genres far removed from the traditions of popular song, is Feinstein having any success connecting young listeners to the music he loves?
"I’m optimistic," he responded. "With technology, there’ more access to the music. Being immersed in my music workshops, I’m in constant contact with high schoolers. Will it endure? Absolutely, yes, it’s like Shakespeare and Picasso, it transcends the time when it was written. It will survive."
But, he added ominously, "if we survive as a civilization."
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On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.