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Review: Feinstein's tribute to Sinatra proves he's a great entertainer

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Michael Feinstein has won fame as singer and pianist, and affection too for reviving the great American songbook with devotion and integrity. Thursday night he was also a great entertainer.

Feinstein performed a tribute to Frank Sinatra with Marvin Hamlisch and the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops that showed why musical style is a much more potent way to evoke an artist than the mannerism of impressionists. He had great stories to tell about Sinatra and his songs, as well as ready wit to make it fun.

Yes, Feinstein did use some body language, swinging with the beat, and hand and arm gestures to the audience. But it felt real, a natural response to the music he was obviously into.

Vocally the singer was in top form. Hamlisch told him, "I've never heard you sound better." His voice was warm and appealing. It was lovely on softer sustained notes, and had winning power as well.

Hamlisch started the concert at Heinz Hall, Downtown, by saying it was about the Sinatra mood, "cool and laid back." Then he conducted the brash opening of an orchestral medley, "Salute to Ol' Blue Eyes" that showed the orchestra, especially the brass, came to play. But often when Feinstein was singing the brass was too loud. The engineer at the sound panel had the good taste not to over amplify the singer.

The voice came into play with "Luck Be A Lady," which Feinstein sang with rhythmic power. He belted out the finish standing on the top of the grand piano at the front center of the stage.

Feinstein also reveled in Sinatra's introspective style, never more so than in "Fly Me to the Moon." He was accompanied by guitarist Joe Negri and bassist Jeff Grubbs. Negri, who played a beautiful solo in the song, received such a big hand from the audience on his introduction that both Feinstein and Hamlisch joked about it. The rapport between the three performers was so close and sensitive that this song was a moment of magic.

The piano was put to its intended use in an instrumental fantasy on " Brazil" by Ary Barroso. Feinstein's performance was a reminder he began as a pianist and still has the chops. His rhythm was electric. He was also a fine ensemble player.

Highlights after intermission included "It's All Right With Me," which Feinstein said he enjoyed because it let him be a cad for three minutes. The Sinatra style was just right.

Even more memorable was "I Remember You," which the singer said was a tribute to Judy Garland by lyricist Johnny Mercer after their affair. The nuances of affection were beautifully evoked.

One of the most fascinating songs performed Thursday night was an act of imagination. Sinatra sang "Begin the Beguine" only in the '40s. The singer performed it in a Nelson Riddle style arrangement as Sinatra might have in the '50s.

The concert closed with a song Sinatra liked to sing when he was no longer young, "For Once in My Life." At its conclusion, the audience erupted in a standing ovation. Not the pro forma one often seen, but genuinely enthusiastic.

The encore was "New York, New York," which at its conclusion found Feinstein on top of the piano again.

Sinatra may have grown up in New Jersey, but he made it in New York and everywhere. This show will be a hit wherever Feinstein takes it.

Michael Feinstein's performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops continue at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission. $20-$99. Details: 412-392-4900

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