Interview: Michael Feinstein talks TWO PIANOS: WHO COULD ASK FOR ANYTHING MORE?

Performances run at Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, Boston, May 31 - June 1.

By: May. 27, 2023
Interview: Michael Feinstein talks TWO PIANOS: WHO COULD ASK FOR ANYTHING MORE?

Fans of George and Ira Gershwin, prepare to rejoice.

Michael Feinstein is about to once again burnish his long-held reputation as a leading interpreter of the music of the iconic composer and his lyricist brother – the team responsible for songs like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “The Man I Love,” and many more – when he brings “Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More?” to Boston’s Symphony Hall, May 31–June 1, and Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, on July 18.

George Gershwin (1898–1937) also wrote the scores for the opera “Porgy and Bess” and numerous Broadway shows like “Strike Up the Band” and “Girl Crazy,” as well as orchestral works including “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.”

And although he could probably handle both, Feinstein will be playing just one of the concert’s titular pianos, sharing the stage with French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The concerts – featuring conductor Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops – will present brand-new Gershwin arrangements as well as music by composers Vincent Youmans, Richard Rodgers, and Leonard Bernstein.

The Columbus, Ohio-born Feinstein’s enduring interest in Tin Pan Alley began in the late 1970s, with a six-year stint as assistant to the late Ira Gershwin (1896–1983). Following the Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist’s death, Feinstein embarked on a performing career that built on his knowledge and love of the music of not only the Gershwins but also Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Harry Warren, and more.

In 2007, the five-time Grammy Award nominee founded the Carmel, Indiana-based Great American Songbook Foundation, a non-profit organization which celebrates the timeless standards of pop, jazz, Broadway, and Hollywood by curating physical artifacts of its creators, performers, and publishers. The Foundation also has an educational focus, offering master classes and an annual High School Songbook Academy.

While Feinstein’s work as an educator and archivist occupies a significant portion of his time, it takes its place alongside his very active career as a pianist, singer, recording artist, and producer, and Principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena Pops.

By telephone recently, Feinstein – author of the 2012 Simon & Schuster release, “The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs” – talked about his upcoming dates with the Boston Pops, why he’s glad to be collaborating with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and more.

Who came up with the idea for “Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More”?

It was born out of social interaction with Jean-Yves, whom I met many years ago at a party given by a mutual friend. As we became friends, we would say, “We should work together.” It was a platitude at first, but then, because we both admired him, George Gershwin became the lynchpin for this project. Jean-Yves and I share the same birthday, too, September 7, although he’s five years younger, which gives us something further in common.

What makes Jean-Yves Thibaudet a good partner for you on this project?

His unique approach to music and his different perspective when we both talk about the same piece of music makes him a very interesting collaborator. Jean-Yves also has perfect pitch and is able to mine subtleties that we didn’t even know existed in what is otherwise a familiar piece. I knew right away that I would learn from him. And he loves that I extemporize and sometimes play improvisationally. In terms of the new arrangements we’ll be doing, Jean-Yves’ interpretive style is very broad while I always go back to the original recordings for inspiration.

Does your friendly rapport also help?

Yes, he’s wonderful to be around. I think he wakes up happy. He loves fine wine and great food, and he wears gorgeous clothes, crazy tennis shoes, and the most amazing wristwatches. But he challenges me, too, which I need. I’m lazy, but I say yes to Jean-Yves when he wants to get to work because if I didn’t, I’d sleep in and then spend all day in my basement looking through boxes of music – 10,000 square feet of music, acetates, and more, actually.

You also famously enjoyed a working relationship and friendship with Ira Gershwin. How did that come about and what was it like to get to know someone whose talent you so admired?

I was introduced to Ira in 1977 and he went on to hire me to catalogue his vast collection of phonograph records. Ira and I bonded very quickly and we became buddies. He was very kind and warm to me. As we listened to his songs, I would learn so much about lyric phrasing and interpretation.

We didn’t only listen to original recordings either. Ira loved some of the later recordings, like Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” In the 1920s, most of the early Gershwin songs were sung faster, but by the 1940s tempos changed and that was left behind. Ira was fine with that. He would say, “I’m so glad people are still listening to George’s music.”

What is it about the music of George Gershwin that gives it such lasting, universal appeal?

It’s the divine energy of a unique voice. For him, there was no gap between seeing something he wanted to do and realizing it. His ego was healthy, but he was beguiled by his own gift for capturing a unique style and sound. The timelessness and divine energy of his music transcends the corporeal.

Photo caption: Michael Feinstein, at left, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Photo: Michael Blank.


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