Feinstein swings with the symphony

Michael Feinstein isn’t simply paying lip service when he says The City is a special place.

San Francisco is where I had my first major success,” said the country’s most prominent interpreter of standards during a recent phone conversation.

The Los Angeles-based musician (who also has a club in New York), comes to town to sing with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Hall performances. Sunday’s show is called “New York Nights”; Monday’s is a New Year’s Eve gala featuring champagne, refreshments, balloons and dancing following the concert.

“It’s my 20th anniversary with San Francisco. It’s the first place where I ever performed with an orchestra,” he says, describing a San Francisco Symphony pops show in July of 1987 conducted by John Dankworth in which he played “Rhapsody in Blue.”

As they typically do, Feinstein’s weekend concerts will include songs by George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter — “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “At Long Last Love,” for example.

He’ll be doing “a lot” of love songs. “The end of the year is sentimental,” he says.

Even though the tunes he sings are familiar and performed often, Feinstein never gets tired of them.

“The material is timeless,” he says. “It’s organic for me.” He points out that’s not the case for some people, mentioning Rod Stewart, who sold “how many millions” of CDs of “superficial” and “formulaic” interpretations of standards.

Feinstein contrasts his own performance style, how he really “gets inside the lyric.” It’s a skill he honed working in piano bars for so many years, he says.

If he does get tired of a song, he’ll retire it. But his program also is dependent on listeners: “It’s the enthusiasm of the audience; it’s not about me,” he says.

He doesn’t think he’ll ever run out of songs to perform. “I have a collection of music that’s massive — 20,000 pieces. I’ll die before I sing every song I want to sing,” he says.

Among Feinstein’s more memorable gigs was back in 1985, when he played San Francisco’s Plush Room. The club had just reopened after it was renovated.

Around that time, he was no stranger to The City. A vegan, he enjoyed eating at Greens and hanging out in Chinatown, where he also found good vegetarian dining — and foot massages.

During this weekend’s short visit — he’ll be off for a short, relaxing break at home before going to London — he may get the chance to see friends.

If not, he’ll definitely enjoy the warmth of his audiences in San Francisco. He says, “This is the place where I discovered I could have a career.”

lkatz@examiner.com

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