Each year, since its origination in 2009, I have covered The Songbook Academy sponsored by the Great American Songbook Foundation and founded by five-time GRAMMY nominated entertainer, Michael Feinstein. The week-long summer high school intensive, which took place July 15-22, concentrates on the jazz, pop, Broadway and Hollywood music from the Great American Songbook. It also offers opportunities for 40 uber-talented student vocalists, selected from all over the country, to be mentored by industry professionals and university educators.
I had the good fortune of attending four Songbook events at The Palladium. One was the free public master class held Wednesday, July 19, in which ten randomly chosen participants were critiqued by mentors Feinstein and Marc Cherry (creator and executive producer of “Desperate Housewives” and “Devious Maids”). The other was the free Songbook Showcase, held Thursday, July 20, during which all forty finalists perform solo. A spectacular finish for the week was the Songbook Finals Concert, Saturday, July 22, which featured the top ten finalists competing for awards before a panel of judges and a live audience. Proof of the Songbook Academy’s growing popularity with the public were the large crowds that filled the Palladium house for both public events and the closing concert which saw the 1,600-seat house, completely sold out.
Throughout the week, the finalists also had the chance to work with other professional mentors that included professional industry mentors Eden Espinosa, known for lead roles in Broadway’s “Wicked” and “Brooklyn”; and two-time Grammy winner Sylvia McNair, star of opera, cabaret and musical theater.
A unexpected addition to Songbook activities last week was a news conference held prior to the master class during which the Songbook Foundation announced that it had been named a Cultural Affiliate of the Los Angeles-based GRAMMY Museum. That means that the Songbook Foundation will have access to the Museum’s exhibitions, educational initiatives, research programs, internship opportunities, technical support, collaborative promotion and more. The Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica; the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK; the Beatles Story in Liverpool, England; and National Blue Musuem in St Louis MO. are some of the other select affiliations of the Museum. Present to answer questions from the press were Bob Santelli, founding executive director of the GRAMMY Museum; Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard; Jeffrey McDermott, interim president/CEO of the Center for the Performing Arts; Chris Lewis, Songbook Academy executive director and Feinstein.
After the news conference I caught up with Feinstein backstage and asked him about the importance of the Foundation’s new affiliation with the GRAMMY Museum. “Just ten years I was sitting at home looking at all the artifacts I had gathered and thought ‘How can I share this with people. How can I make people aware of what this represents and help perpetuate the American popular song which for me has always been the bedrock of America’s greatest musical contribution the world.’ And here it is, just a few years later that there is this association with the city of Carmel and the cultural life of this place that has made it possible for the great American Songbook Foundation to come into the world and grow at a rate that seems rather extraordinary.” said Feinstein.
The master class which is my favorite Songbook activity held its usual fascination It is rare opportunity to watch luminaries, much less those with the credentials of mentors Feinstein and Cherry, coach young performers. Each of the ten finalists was allowed 15 minutes during which the mentors heard them sing two different songs (one upbeat and one ballad) during a three hour period with breaks. It had to be intimidating, not to mention nerve-racking for the young people to perform for the mentors, much less an live audience, but each finalist stayed poised. The young vocalists also seemed to accept criticism, and praise, with grace—demonstrating that they had taken to heart suggestions given by the mentors regarding such elements as song choice, lyric interpretation, and performance techniques. One thing was certain—the quality of these randomly chosen ten participants was a strong indication that the overall quality of talent represented by the finalists had to be extremely high.
That estimation was more than confirmed when all 40 finalists performed during the next day’s Songbook Showcase which was held in two sessions from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a 90-minute break. Singing two songs each had chosen, the finalists, were accompanied by first-rate pianists that included Tex Arnold, Mel Shore, Daryl Kojak and Beckie Menzie. The showcase was nothing short of an embarrassment of riches, with each performer exhibiting stage presence, vocal excellence and maturity beyond their years. Watching and listening to these young people sing many of my favorite songs, was not only uplifting but inspirational as well.
During the intermission for Saturday’s closing concert and Songbook Academy Finals which featured the top ten of the 40 finalists, one could overhear numerous audience members proclaim “I don’t know how in the world the judges will be able to choose the winner. They are all so good.” But choose they did and taking top honors as the 2017 Songbook Youth Ambassador was Finn Sagal, a senior at a Cañada Flintridge High School in suburban Los Angeles.
The tall, 17-year old who wants to study opera in college, won over the enthusiastic and supportive audience when he sang “Lucky Be A Lady Tonight,” from the musical “Guys and Dolls” during Act 1. Prior to singing Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” in Act 2, Sagal charmed the audience with a story about how his grandmother, a USO performer, who sang the song to departing troops during World War II. More surprised than anyone in the house when emcee Feinstein announced his name, Sagal later said “This has been the craziest, most shocking night of my life. I really had no idea. I did not think I was going to win, because I have been working with the most talented people I have ever met in my entire life.”
As the Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador, Sagal will have the chance to perform in numerous prestigious venues over the coming year, often with Feinstein. The Songbook Academy founder will no doubt remain a mentor for Sagal, just as he has for all former Songbook Ambassadors.
Tying for second place were Emily Estep of Fresno, CA, and Cole Winston, of Hartland, WI,who won the Songbook Inspiration Award. Third place honors went to Caleb Freeman of Webb City, MO, who won the Songbook Celebration Award
The other six finalists were Joie Bianco of Staten Island, NY; Cinderella Ksebati of Grosse Pointe Farms, MI; Jonathan Mitzenmacher of Miami, FL; Joseph Silva of Reseda, CA; Adriana Scalice of Penfield, NY; and George Walker of Decatur, IL.
Also recognized were Hayden Elefante of Zionsville, IN, Musical Theatre Award; Lucy Breedlove of Vienna, VA, Most Growth; Zoe Stewart of Mendon, MA, Most Promising; and affable George Walker of Decatur, IL. who was obviously popular with and beloved by his peers, won the Songbook Spirit Award.
The richly entertaining Songbook Finals capped off a week of events that illustrated just how important the Great American Songbook Foundation’s mission is to preserve and promote the Great American Songbook. It would indeed be a tragedy if this music did not exist for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. However, thanks to the combined efforts of Feinstein, the Foundation, the GRAMMY Museum and the Songbook Academy All Stars, past, present and future, this uniquely American music will not only live on, but hopefully, flourish. In the midst of so much darkness and negativity in the world, the Songbook Academy is a shining beacon of light
For information about the Great American Songbook Foundation and The Songbook Academy visit thecenterfortheperformingarts.org.