In a career spent reinvigorating and advocating for the Great American Songbook, it’s safe to say that Michael Feinstein has a special fondness for the Gershwins. As an aspiring cabaret singer, he spent six years working as Ira Gershwin’s personal assistant until his death. In that time, he developed a friendship with the legendary lyricist’s neighbor, who came up with a nickname for her young friend.
”Rosemary Clooney called me the ‘Angel of Death,’ because I would befriend a lot of these old songwriters, and shortly after I started hanging out with them, they would pass. Admittedly, most of them were in their 80s, but it became humorous in the sense that it’s like, ‘Oh, here comes Michael,’ then they go,” Feinstein says, chuckling.
The pianist and singer’s love of George and Ira’s music has endured over the decades, from his very first studio album (1987′s “Pure Gershwin”) all the way to his most recent release, “Gershwin Country,” a collaboration with Nashville stars like Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, and, um, Liza Minnelli. Feinstein and French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet join the Boston Pops Wednesday and Thursday at Symphony Hall in celebration of the brothers’ enduring musical legacy. Even so, for someone who’s held extraordinary Gershwin relics in his hand — including George’s earliest known manuscript (for “Ragging the Traumerei,” written when the composer was a teen) — there’s one song that probably won’t be on the program.
“One of the things that was frustrating is that George’s first grown-up song was called ‘Since I Found You,” says Feinstein. “It’s a lost song, but Ira could still hum it and hear it in his brain. And I always wish that there was some way to extract what he heard in his head, the harmonies and the rest of the song. Because it was there in his head, but it didn’t exist physically.”
Q. “Gershwin Country” is at least your fourth Gershwin collection. Do you intend to keep doing them over and over again until you get them right?
A. I intend to keep doing them over and over again until I get them wrong. [Chuckles] No, I don’t even remember which ones I’ve done previously. So I don’t think in those terms. By virtue of living life and going through the world, traversing the world artistically, inevitably the interpretations will change. If I go back and listen to my first recording, I don’t recognize that person. I mean, I find little bits of me in those recordings, but when I listen to certain artistic choices or the way I sing them, I don’t recognize the instincts that made those choices. So that’s fascinating, that it’s like some parts of that recording are another person.
Q. You do a bit to deflate this notion in the liner notes, but some of what you sing on on “Live at the Algonquin” suggests that you held the Great American Songbook and Broadway show tunes in higher regard than other forms of popular music, like rock music. Did you ever feel that way, and do you still feel anything along those lines?
A. I had more musical boundaries when I was younger, just as I by and large could not connect with Cole Porter, a lot of Cole Porter’s songs, and I particularly denigrated the song “Night and Day” until I had to sing it for something and now have a certain kind of love for that song. So things do change. One of the things that is interesting about criticism, writing criticism or being a writer, is that when one expresses an opinion, sometimes it’s hard to change it. And I’ve learned that one of the greatest gifts to me is to be able to change my opinion and say, “Well, I didn’t know what I thought I knew” or “I was wrong.” So as I evolve as an artist, I certainly embrace more styles and types of music.
Q. You just said that you had a hard time finding your way into Cole Porter. Why was that so difficult?
A. Because I found his expression sometimes arch lyrically. And musically, he would write intervals that just did not sing naturally. Like the verse of, what is the song, is it “You’ve Got That Thing”? [singing] “When at first you blew baba baba, baba, baba baba . . .” Very hard to sing, not a natural melody. Clearly perspirational to me. I may be absolutely wrong, but that’s my reaction to it. But then when it gets to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” it’s a supreme song. Or “Begin the Beguine,” which I first sort of dismissed until I looked at the lyric of that thing, and it’s such a fascinating psychological study of character. So it was my failing that I didn’t look past the societal references and the flash-in-the-pan references, as opposed to the greater depth of what he expressed.
Q. You’re the principal conductor for the Pasadena Pops. So I have to ask: Are you just coming to the Boston Pops for the purposes of espionage?
A. [Laughs] No, I know my place. I know my musical place. It’s funny, because when I started conducting, which was completely unexpected, I thought, “Why in the hell didn’t I pay more attention to all the conductors that I’ve worked with, really pay attention to what they were doing?” I now watch very carefully different conducting styles and techniques. Especially, for example, when John Williams conducts. His conducting to me is like haiku. It’s so unique. I don’t understand it. But clearly the sounds he’s gotten from the orchestras are majestic. So it’s fascinating, because conducting is something that can be taught to a degree, and then you can’t teach it. You can teach the technical stuff, but then the life experience is what determines whether you have the rest of what it takes to be a conductor.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
TWO PIANOS: WHO COULD ASK FOR ANYTHING MORE?
With Michael Feinstein and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. At Symphony Hall. May 31 and June 1 at 8 p.m. $24-$96. bso.org/events/two-pianos-spring-pops