Earlier this year, a unique collection from history was on display in downtown Louisville, though not in the physical sense, but, rather, of the musical variety. The historic Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts hosted a musical collaboration between The Louisville Orchestra and Michael Feinstein, in which the two collaborators presented a wide variety of selections from the so-called ‘Great American Songbook.’
The variety of the show put on by Mr. Feinstein and the orchestra made for an evening of entertaining unexpectedness. At one point, for example, Mr. Feinstein invited a high school sophomore from New York to join him on stage and sing “Feeling Good” from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. As for Mr. Feinstein himself, at times he played the piano, in one instance he took over the conductor’s stand and personally conducted a few pieces, and –throughout the night– he took center stage to sing to the accompaniment of the orchestra behind him.
The most powerful moment of the night, however, came at the very end of the show with Feinstein’s performance of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. After many upbeat and lighthearted pieces earlier in the evening, Mr. Feinstein’s quiet introduction to the closing song intimated a shift to a more somber tone. Sensing the shift, an added stillness seemed to come over the members of the audience and the other musicians on stage, as Feinstein took a moment then began singing, “There’s a place for us . . .”
What, perhaps, made Feinstein’s rendition of the song so powerful was its performance outside of its standard context. Rather than serve as one component in the larger West Side Story musical or one piece in a Leonard Bernstein retrospective, the song, as presented by Feinstein, had a chance to stand on its own. He did not emphasize the moment in history at which it was written (1957), or its roots in the music of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (the ‘Emperor Concerto’ and Swan Lake, respectively). Instead, Feinstein, via his voice, let the notes and the lyrics speak for themselves.
In doing so, Feinstein allowed “Somewhere” to touch on a wide variety of contexts. Of course, there is the unignorable context of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the adaptation of the star-crossed lovers’ words that “Somewhere” is. For others members of the audience, however, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” may have come to mind, with the lyrics “peace, and quiet, and open air” echoing “[a place where] skies are blue” and “happy little bluebirds fly.” For me, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s 1968 musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat came to mind. Just as Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics speak of “somewhere a place for us,” Rice’s lyrics for the Biblical character of Joseph have him stating, “we know we shall find our own peace of mind, for we have been promised a land of our own.”
No less, the latter connection presents an even wider array of contexts in which to place “Somewhere.” If one can reconsider Tony and Maria’s love song from West Side Story as a companion piece to an Old Testament disciple’s vision of a life beyond Egyptian slavery, then one can view the duet as an expression of hope and forward-looking felt so often throughout history. As Moses led the Israelites across the desert for forty years, perhaps he, too, thought to himself, “There is a place for us, somewhere a place for us.” As the pilgrims sailed from Europe to North America seeking religious freedom, surely they told themselves at times, “There is place for us, somewhere a place for us.” “Somewhere,” in fact, debuted just three years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. For African-Americans denied equal treatment and full inclusion in American society at that time, might they have heard the lyrics of “Somewhere” as something different from the love song that, on the surface, it is?
Without question, Feinstein’s performance of “Somewhere” was, from a technical perspective, great. Every phrase was pitch perfect, no lyric hurried over, and he held the final note for an incredible amount of time. Nevertheless, Mr. Feinstein’s ability to deliver “Somewhere” in such a way as to elicit the connections like those above, provoke thought, and –ultimately– inspire, was the true gift he provided the audience that night.
• For Examiner.com, I’m Guy Montgomery.
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