Saturday 16 December 2017

Michael Feinstein: I've been with my partner, Terrence, for 20 years - our close friend Judge Judy married us

Michael Feinstein (60) is a pianist, singer and music revivalist. As a young man, he worked as an archivist for the lyricist Ira Gershwin. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he lives between Indiana, New York and Los Angeles with his husband, Terrence Flannery

Michael Feinstein. Photo: A J Mast
Michael Feinstein. Photo: A J Mast

Ciara Dwyer

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is figure out where I am. I travel a great deal and, more often than not, I am away from home. I try to get some sense of normalcy when I travel - from the light coming into the room, to the bed's position, to the temperature, to the atmosphere. I always have sleep masks, an inflatable pillow and a bottle of lavender oil by the bed. I'm a night person. I like to sleep in. It takes me a long time to wake up. I've never tasted coffee, and I don't drink any stimulants. I never did. I've been a vegan for 14 years, and now I'm gluten-free and sugar-free. I just feel better.

Once I am up and about, I need to have quiet for a long time. I don't speak to anyone. I drink a glass of water with lemon juice. If I'm in LA, I'll take a hike in the hills of Griffith Park, and then I meditate. Then I'll start my day. I limit my time on the computer. Then it depends on whether I have a concert or not. I have to see if my throat is in good shape. That will determine if I can go out or not. I will focus on preparation of a show, and then I read. I do different and varied concerts. I work with symphonies and big bands and solo piano. I will be coming to the NCH on March 25 to perform the music of Frank Sinatra with the RTE Concert Orchestra. Working with a great orchestra is very uplifting for a singer. It's a collaboration.

I do up to 200 dates a year, sometimes. I have a home in Los Angeles and a home in New York City - however, my primary residence is in Indiana, where I am artistic director of a performing arts centre. I started a non-profit organisation for the preservation of the Great American Songbook. The nucleus of it is songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers and Hart. Classic songs have withstood time, and have power for today's audience.

I started playing the piano when I was five. I just sat down and started playing with both hands. I could play by ear. My mother came into the room and said, 'Who taught you that?' I said, 'No one'. She didn't believe me, and sent me to my room to punish me for fibbing. I had just played Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music, which I had heard. She presumed that my father had taught me.

Playing by ear is something I've continued to do. Later on, I learnt to read music, but I still don't read music very well. This may sound odd, considering I work as a conductor, too. I started playing in piano bars. That's where I learnt most of what I know about performing. If you can perform for five hours with drunks sitting around, you learn pretty quickly how to garner attention. The best way to get someone to be quiet is to make a joke and involve them. I had many drunks joining in, and if they gave me a big enough tip, it didn't matter.

In 1977, I was introduced to Ira Gershwin, the lyricist who wrote the words to all of his brother George's melodies. He asked me to work for him, cataloguing his phonographic records. Suddenly, I was face-to-face with one of my idols. I was 20 and he was 80. Those are impressionable years in anyone's life. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. He taught me that fame wasn't important; that you had to follow your passion, otherwise you'd never be happy.

Before a show, I do vocal exercises, drink tea and have some manuka honey. I'll do a little bit of meditation and prayer. People ask me if I'm still Jewish. Well, according to Hitler, I'll always be Jewish. I'm not practising, but yes, I am Jewish, and the Jewish culture is a very important part of my life. I'll use Yiddish phrases on stage and the response will tell me how many Jews are in the audience. Like many, I am culturally steeped in the Jewish heritage, but the actual rituals did not resonate with me when I was in my teens.

When I went to Hebrew school, the classes were in the basement of the synagogue, which had bare concrete walls. It was stark and depressing and I couldn't stand it. I complained to my mother and she was very irritated by what I said. Then, one day, she came to pick me up and she said, 'You're absolutely right'.

I told my parents that I didn't want to practise Judaism. They knew me well enough at that point to realise that I was a thoughtful kid, unusually so for my age. My father said, 'They say that if you are not bar mitzvahed in the Jewish religion, you are not a man.' I said, 'Well, isn't it true that you can do bar mitzvah at any age?' He agreed. So I said, 'If I change my mind, I'll let you know.' I was never bar mitzvahed, except on three occasions when different rabbis have put their hands on my head and said, 'I'm a rabbi, and you're bar mitzvahed'. Do you count that?

I've been with my partner, Terrence, for 20 years. We are close friends with Judge Judy, and she married us. She is Jewish. On television, she lays that tough attitude on pretty thick, but she is a generous, funny and kind person. And as you'd suspect, she's very wise. Terrence and I travel together 95pc of the time. He is very supportive and knows nothing about music, which is wonderful. There is no competition. At this point, he is too bored with my music to be in the audience, but he is always nearby. That's good.

After a show, I am so tired that I look forward to hibernating, but meet-and-greets are always pleasurable. I like to thank my audience. Usually I go back to my room, have quiet time, read and then I'll go to sleep. Sometimes I even put music sheets under the pillow, so that when I sleep, it helps getting it into the brain. People think it's absurd. That's one of my peccadilloes, I guess.

Michael Feinstein joins the RTE Concert Orchestra for 'A Celebration of Frank Sinatra', at 8pm on Saturday, March 25, at the National Concert Hall. Tickets from €20 to €45. See rte.ie/orchestras

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