It has always amazed me that there are still those in Central Indiana who have no idea about the profound impact five-time Grammy® Award nominated entertainer, virtuoso pianist, educator, archivist, interpreter and Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein has made on the local arts landscape. Notwithstanding the fact that has enjoyed a spectacular career as a top-selling and critically acclaimed recording artist and has headlined live concerts in many of the most prestigious venues world-wide, Feinstein’s local career achievements are equally extraordinary.
Feinstein serves as artistic director of the Center for The Performing Arts, the three-theatre venue, which opened in 2011. In 2007, Feinstein founded the Great American Songbook Foundation which serves to preserve and promote America’s rich cultural heritage, and which is headquartered at the Center which is also the home of a museum housing Feinstein’s rare memorabilia and manuscripts. Feinstein also founded the Songbook Academy which is a national summer intensive for high school-aged singers from all over the country who have an interest in classic Broadway, jazz and popular music. Students travel to Carmel to have the chance to work with music industry pros, award winning singers and performers, educators from top university music and theatre programs. And if the popular entertainer’s local association with Carmel is not enough, last Spring a cabaret that bears his name, Feinstein’s at Hotel Carmichael, adjacent to the Center, opened in Carmel.
I have interviewed Feinstein numerous times since the Center opened and cover the Songbook Academy, annually. Fortunately, Feinstein has always been most gracious in accommodating my requests for interviews. The Zoom call I had with him from his NYC apartment last week was no exception. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Your newest album Gershwin Country, featuring you in duets with top country stars, was released in March. How was the project developed?
The idea for a country recording came to me a number of years ago when I visited Maya Angelou at her home in Winston Salem. Maya was a close friend, and we wrote a song together and spent a lot of time listening to music and when I was staying with her in Winston Salem she started playing and talking about different country tracks that she liked. She talked eloquently about like she did about country music, and it gave me the idea about doing an album about country songs and she said she would executive produce it and I was thrilled with that idea and then she passed away and that was the end of that.
. Then one morning while lying in bed I got this crazy idea in my head of Gershwin and country, thinking about the roots of Gershwin music and country music and how it’s all…two different kinds of Americana and while the idea seemed a little odd at the onset, the more I thought about it the more it seemed like it could be an interesting idea and it’s something that no one else did before and I just started pursing the idea and eventually it became a reality. It took several years. It is the only project I ever worked on that I did not have a specific end date. I did not have a deadline because I just had to go through the process and figure out how to make it happen how to make it work and figure out all the elements. Not only the treatment that the songs would get, as performed by a Nashville band and a Nashville instrumentation but also the nature of the duets because usually when one hears a duet album, these days, the male singer sings his bars in his keys…the female sings in her key and they go back and forth…” you do a line…I do a line…” It is pretty much by the numbers boring…” cynical duets” I call them. This is the opposite of that. I worked extremely hard at choosing songs a real purpose for being sung together and the vocal routines and harmonies and all of that. That was the most time consuming of anything.
How did you manage the scheduling?
Scheduling with all these partners was certainly a challenge and sometimes and even more of a challenge dealing with their managers. It was when people were available. I flew to Houston to perform with Lyle Lovett. Most of the other tracks were recorded in Nashville. Those with Amy Grant and the Time Jumpers and with Ronnie Milsap and Allison Krause were recorded in Nashville. We got together when we could when everybody was available and there were a lot of rescheduling. Some off the recordings were virtual Even though some of the recordings were virtual, I defy anybody to try and tell the difference between the cuts that are in person and the ones that are virtual, because again, this was done with a mind that this must be in every way, authentic?
How did the artists respond when you approached them about recording with you?
The first reaction was positive, and the artists were excited at the thought of doing something different. Rose Ann Cash said, “oh my gosh, this is so out of my wheelhouse, but I am so excited” and that was the general feelings. I knew that Allison Krause could sing standards because she sang a Johnny Mercer song on the soundtrack in “The Garden of Good and Evil” and of course, with all her Grammys, she could sing anything. And I knew they could all do it and I chose songs so carefully that, everybody loved the choices. Like when I suggested “I Got Rhythm “to Brad Paisley, he said, “I know exactly what to do with this.” Those were his exact words. And with Lye Lovett, with Clap Yo’ Hands,” it was something that I felt he would want to do, and he was, and he loved it. And it was just fun.
Why did you choose the artists you did?
I love all their voices and tried to imagine them singing the Gershwin canon and that was the biggest and most important factor/
How was Liza Minnelli involved?
Liza was the executive producer and the reason for that was she grew up with Gershwin music and she knows Gershwin songs as well as I do and when I told her I was starting to work on the project she said, “Can I help?” And I said “Sure!!” She went through song lists and was coming up with ideas saying with “what about his and what about that?” It’s a family connection for her because her father worked with both George and Ira Gershwin on Broadway and her mother starred in the movie “Girl Crazy” and at the last minute really, I asked Liza to be a participant in it because, obviously she is not a country singer, but she wanted to do “Embraceable You” as an homage to her father and her mother. It was her father’s favorite song, and her mother sang it in a movie so that is why we did it
Have you considered making a TV special out of it?
I will let you handle the scheduling. (laughs)
It would make a good one, don’t you agree?
I could see you on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
I am supposed to be on the Grand Old Opry stage on May 20 (his Opry debut)
You are sharing the Palladium stage in a concert with Sandi Patty on May 7. How many times have the two of you performed together?
Sandy and I have only performed together once. If you know here, the minute you meet her, there is an immediate connection. Certainly, we connected both musically and personally and when we did a show previously at the Palladium, we had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time together during rehearsal and preparation. She is just a love of a human being and, of course, once of the greatest singers of any time, any place. I remember after finishing her set, she came back on stage and I said, “And Jews love her too!” And she thought that was the funniest thing she ever heard, and she asked me “Can I put hat on my website?” and I said “Please, whatever you like.”
She has also been a mentor for you Songbook Academy, hasn’t she?
Yes. She has a gift for being able to communicate and impart her art to others. That is a separate talent and she certainly inspired young people with whom she is mentoring.
What can you tell me about your concert with Sandi?
We do have some things planned together. I do not know that Sandy is planning in her set, but we will have separate sequences and a number of things together. One of the things we love is Broadway. And we previously did “Some Enchanted Evening” which I hope we will reprise but we have some other things planned as well so they will be real duets.
How are you feeling about the current state of the Center?
One on the wonderful things about the Palladium is that all the research and careful planning that went into the creation of the Center has pretty much come to pass in that it fills a need for the communities in the area, not only Carmel, but all the surrounding communities beyond. Research showed it would add to the attendance of arts all through the area. I know there were so many people who were so concerned that a performing arts center in Carmel would take away from the audiences in Indianapolis and research said that would not happen ad indeed that is the case. More people have come to the area, and it has only helped to build up the arts community and that is what we knew from the start and believed would happen has happened. So, in that sense, it has been a tremendous gift for all of us to be able to help others in the community to join in strengthening the arts in any way we can. Through the last several years we have discovered many new friends of the Performing Arts Center because of the necessity to be virtual and that has connected us to people in a much stronger way than we could have ever dreamed of happening.
All over the world?
Yes, all over the world. And we have gained support from people who have joined our mission. we have been very lucky that there have been a number of supporters who have helped us through a very difficult time. We have come out of it very strong. And in some ways stronger than we were before as we now have proof that these other means of communicating art through the virtual world is something that will remain a component of what we do, it has helped us to expand in a way that would not have happened.
Are you aware of The Palladium’s positive reputation with performers?
Yes, I do hear it and all of us as performers have experiences where there are very nice theatres or concert halls that are great on the outside, the lobbies are great, the theatres are great, but the backstage…sometimes it’s the worst because the money goes where it is seen. Sometimes dressing rooms can be in dire need of refurbishment but the money goes to other needs. So not only is the Palladium beautiful for the audience and the performers on stage but so are the dressing rooms and the backstage area and our infrastructure. Ellen Kingston, our concierge, is so responsive to artists. There are not too many concert halls or theatres that have a dedicated concierge and is all encompassing as Ellen and her staff are.
That is something that is almost unique to us and because of that it is kind of surprising for performers who say “oh, you’ll do this? It is not expected. When you do a concert tour you are on your own and if you have a need, you must know how to take care of it yourself. If it’s a button that comes off a shirt or this or that, you usually must figure it out with the person with whom you are travelling. You cannot rely on somebody being there at the venue to help you, so they are struck by the fact that there is so much support and that is something we work very hard to achieve. That is one of the things of which I am most proud.
When was the last live Songbook Academy?
The last one was 2019.
The All Stars are coming back to Carmel?
Yes, and that is one of the things I have missed the most because working with singers and performers is very difficult, very difficult. You can only do so much online but to be in the room not only to feel it but to have a live pianist. It worked extremely well, much better than any of us thought it would but for that we are grateful, and this will take us back to another level.
Do you know who the mentors are yet?
The short answer is no. We have a good group that we are assembling. It will be a wonderful assemblage. Right now, videos of performers are being submitted/
Do you look at the submission videos?
Sometimes I do. Not all of them. They are viewed before they come to me.
Who views them?
They are all wonderful teachers. And they are great compassionate judges and everyone who submits a video gets a response something to let them know that we seriously considered and saw their work. We also make suggestions and give them critiques. We hope it assists them regardless of whether they become part of the program or not.
You will be doing the big All-star final concert too?
That is one of the most exciting parts of it.
It’s turned into a sold-out event, right?
It has. It went from very humble beginnings to where it is now.
Are you still in touch with past winners such as Nick Ziobro and Maddie Baillio and others?
From time to time I touch base with everyone as we are able. Maddie is supposed to be a guest with the Pasadena Pops this summer and Nick just appeared on the Gilded Age series. He has a part on that. It is wonderful to see them out there.
For tickets and information about “An Evening with Michael Feinstein and Guest Sandi Patty” on May 7, 8 p.m., visit thecenterpresents.org.