Feinstein's committed to the classics

February 19, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

There's nothing Michael Feinstein cherishes more than a well-written song. And no wonder. Feinstein, after all, is a specialist in what many consider to be the golden age of the American popular song. His heroes are composers like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagie Carmichael and Irving Berlin -- men whose best-known songs are rightly considered standards today.

Yet what attracts Feinstein to this music isn't its enduring familiarity so much as its peerless wit and ingenuity. Because back when Porter, Kern and the Gershwins were writing, a clever, literate lyric was every bit as important as a catchy, hummable melody. And frankly, they don't write 'em like that anymore.

Or do they?

"For the most part, they don't write 'em like that anymore," agrees Feinstein. Speaking over the phone from New York, he explains that part of the reason for this is that the purpose of popular music has changed somewhat over the years.

"Those writers whose songs I mainly perform wrote primarily for the theater or for film," he says. "But [today's] pop material is no longer culled from theater or from film; a lot of it is written for the purpose of dancing, where the beat is more important than the lyric. It's a completely different ballgame."

Not to mention a game Feinstein has no interest in playing. "A lot of times people will say, 'Why do you sing these old songs?' I say, 'Why do we listen to Beethoven?' Because it's the same thing, in a certain way. [This music] has transcended its time. It may have been created earlier, but it still has a quality and value for today. The songs still speak to us.

"But there are some people writing good songs today -- people who have an appreciation for the standards," he adds. "For example, Jimmy Webb can write any kind of song, from a theater song to a rock song. He can write anything, and does it all brilliantly."

Feinstein, in fact, has included Webb's "Time Enough for Love" on his next album, "Michael Feinstein . . . Forever," along with several other selections by contemporary songwriters. Moreover, it sounds as if he'd be happy to record even more music by younger writers -- provided it meets his admittedly high standards.

Unfortunately, he says, much of what is being offered in that vein today is a tad too "ersatz" for Feinstein's tastes. "I get a lot of songs submitted from people that say, 'I write songs in the style of the great American classics, and I'd like you to sing my songs.' And usually they don't have any idea what they're talking about. They usually totally miss the mark."

Getting contemporary audiences to appreciate the aesthetics and sensibility that informed the music Feinstein champions can be challenging. But Feinstein not only seems to enjoy the fight, but sees evidence that his side is beginning to gain some ground.

"A lot of younger citizens don't listen to songs in the same way that perhaps an older generation does," he says. "There's a certain segment that only listens to songs by the beat or by the melody, and simply don't listen to lyrics.

"However, the success of so many pop artists who are singing standards lately is growing, and it is an encouraging sign -- and not only with the obvious ones, like Natalie Cole, Linda Ronstadt and Harry Connick. We're finding a lot of pop classic songs that are turning up on other albums. Annie Lennox just recorded 'Keep Young and Beautiful,' which is a 1932 Harry Warren-Al Dubin song, and a lot of them are being mixed in with other pop albums.

"So the material is, in a certain way, becoming more mainstream, and I think the audience is expanding. That's my perception. But, of course, I'm not a person that reads Billboard and is really in the thick of it."

Michael Feinstein

What: A concert to benefit Advocates for Children and Youth, Court Appointed Special Advocates, and Maryland Friends of Foster Children.

When: Sunday at 7 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Tickets: $35 and $60, available at the door.

Call: (410) 547-9200 for information.

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