Michael Feinstein performs at the TCA Winter Press Tour in Pasadena on Jan.… (Rahoul Ghose, PBS )
When he takes to the piano on stages around the country, Michael Feinstein channels an old-school passion for classic American songs. With a seemingly effortless panache as well as a great deal of humor, he spins out tunes by the Gershwins, Cole Porter and other songwriting greats.
Starting next year, Feinstein will bring his signature style to the Pasadena Pops as its new lead conductor, succeeding Marvin Hamlisch, who died unexpectedly on Aug. 6. Feinstein will begin his tenure as the company's principal pops conductor in 2013 and is expected to lead three concerts during the next summer season.
It will mark the first time that Feinstein — a gifted singer and pianist — will assume the baton as a conductor. The career shift is a somewhat daunting prospect, said the 55-year-old musician.
"It will take an enormous amount of work and study on my part to prepare. It's a delicious challenge, and I'll certainly be learning along the way," Feinstein said by phone Thursday.
Feinstein appeared alongside Hamlisch in what turned out to be the conductor's final orchestral appearance at a Pasadena Pops concert July 21 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia. Feinstein and Hamlisch have performed together a number of times in concerts around the country, often playing across from each other on pianos.
Feinstein said the invitation to succeed Hamlisch, which the company conveyed to him through his manager, took him by surprise.
"I thought that's not what I do, and others would be better suited for that," said Feinstein, who has a home in Los Feliz.
But he accepted the appointment because of his "big emotional investment in the group now" and in the hopes of maintaining the orchestra's rising profile since Hamlisch was named principal pops conductor for the 2011 season.
The orchestra reports that it has seen a rise in attendance since Hamlisch joined last year. Paul Jan Zdunek, chief executive officer of the Pasadena Symphony Assn., said audiences grew by about 20% with each pops concert led by Hamlisch. "It was just the way Marvin entertained the audiences. He was not just a musician but an entertainer. Michael has that as well."
The company doesn't regard Feinstein's lack of conducting experience as an impediment.
"He's a musician's musician, and that's what our orchestra responds to and respects," said Zdunek. "We need a leader who's an excellent musician, but they don't need a formally trained conductor."
Feinstein said he had a close working relationship with Hamlisch. "Performing what turned out to be his last concert was a very moving experience. I adored him like a brother."
Feinstein said he is planning to program a diversity of music, including Gershwin, movie scores and pop music from the '70s.
In his varied career, Feinstein has performed on Broadway as well as in theater and cabaret settings around the country. He is perhaps most widely known for his PBS series "Michael Feinstein's American Songbook."
The Pasadena Pops will hold a free tribute concert to Hamlisch on Sept. 22 on the steps of Pasadena's City Hall. The concert, which will begin at 7 p.m., will be conducted by Larry Blank and hosted by actor Jason Alexander.
Blank will also conduct a Sept. 8 concert, "Gershwin on the Green," which had been Hamlisch's next scheduled appearance with Pasadena Pops.