The 1,600 seat Palladium in the $125 million Center for the Performing Arts, in Carmel, Indiana (a half hour drive from Indianapolis) opened in 2011 after years of planning. The magnificent, neo-classical structure, which features superb acoustics, gets its name from the Villa La Rotonda (1556) a Renaissance villa just outside Vicenza, northern Italy, designed by Andrea Palladio.

The scaled-up building and concert hall is across the campus from another building which houses the Studio Theater and the Booth Tarkington Theater. Overall, while elegant and functional, the design is conservative. No cutting-edge Frank Gehy building for this Midwestern community. The Palladium is an elegant, tasteful, functional building designed to last for centuries.

That’s the official spin.

The risk taking on the part of Mayor Jim Brainard is represented by creating for his community a brand-new performance center which is conspicuously absent from the cultural mix of nearby Indianapolis. Its embattled symphony orchestra, for example, performs in a recycled movie theater. So the initiative of Brainard and the small, suburban community he leads is all the more remarkable. During a meeting with the Mayor, prior to the evening performance by Michael Feinstein and Barbara Cook, the group of members and guests of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) learned about the Mayor’s vision.

Carmel is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. The population has expanded from 25,000 to almost 80,000 in the last 12 years. Park land, greenspace and trails have increased from 40 acres to more than 800, including the Monon Trail and Central Park. The creation of a new downtown and the Arts & Design District has revitalized the city.

Inspired by a visit to England, Brainard has encouraged the construction of roundabouts in place of traditional signaled intersections in Carmel, which reduces vehicle emissions. There are figurative sculptures in the center of many of the roundabouts. The City now has more than 50 roundabout intersections.

Executive orders mandate the use of hybrid or flex-fuel vehicles for city operations when available, and a “No Idling” policy has been enacted for city employees. The City’s Utilities Department is encouraged to develop the technology to use recaptured methane gas to power its wastewater treatment facility as well as repurpose its bio-solid waste into high quality fertilizer (topsoil), eliminating the need for its transport to and disposal in a landfill.

With engaging charm, the five-term Mayor quipped that “When I am booted out by the Tea Party, I’ll find something else to do.”

For this gorgeous, bright white concert hall, who better to serve as its artistic director than the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein? In addition to programming, the facility houses The Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative. It was launched with a $1 million gift from Michael Feinstein and his spouse, Terrence Flannery. The Initiative’s mission is to bring the music of the Great American Songbook to young people today and to preserve it for future generations.

The glorious evening focusing on treasures of the American Songbook commenced with a five-song set by the 2013 Youth Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, the 16-year-old prodigy, Nick Ziobro. He was the winner of the Great American Songbook High School Vocal Academy and Competition.

In addition to a $3,000 cash award the Fayetteville-Manilus High School sophomore from upstate New York has received an invaluable career launch. He opened for Feinstein this year during a six-city tour. This was his first return to the stage where he won in a field of some 250 contestants. The competition is being expanded to more states this year.

No fan of “American Idol,” Feinstein is adamant that a talent such as Ziobro would have no chance in the TV series. A cash cow for its producers, the contest focuses on vocal pyrotechnics. It does not respect the ability to swing and interpret the lyrics of classic Tin Pan Alley and showtunes.

Onstage, the slender, agile and gifted Ziobro revealed awesome chops and a performance style entailing sophistication well beyond his years. In that regard, he often projected parody more than a profound understanding of the genre. He conveyed exaggerated, titubating finger snapping and the kind of Vegas moves that evoked memories of Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Dean Martin and others.

He swung ferociously through “All of Me,” “How Long has this Been Going On,” “It All Depends On You,” “This Guy’s in Love with You” and “Too Close for Comfort.”

The capacity audience was thrilled when Feinstein escorted the 85-year-old national treasure (officially recognized with a Kennedy Center Award), Barbara Cook. Excitement prevailed through a 90-minute set with an encore.

Hanging her cane at the edge of the grand piano, Cook settled into a seat with Feinstein on a stool beside her. From the get go, the warmth and mutual admiration of the singers soared through the multi-tiered concert hall. During the evening, Feinstein hugged and kissed Cook several times. You could feel the love.

They opened with “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The 1932 popular song was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics written by Ted Koehler. It was written for the 1932 “Cotton Club Parade” where it was introduced by Cab Calloway and Bing Crosby, later recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1953.

It may be pedantic to offer such details, but it is reflective of the scholarly approach of Feinstein who launched into the Great American Songbook as its Ambassador and archivist after an apprenticeship working for the venerable Ira Gershwin.

During the performance, Cook often commented on how much she learns by working with Feinstein. On a stand next to her seat was a stack of printouts of the lyrics of the songs. She told us that much of it was not a part of her usual set list. For songs like “Makin' Whoopie,” he had provided her with less-familiar lyrics of the Eddie Cantor standard. Some of them were a bit risqué.

There were times when Cook lost the lyrics, but a glance at the cheat sheets, and some judicious prompting from Feinstein, got her back on track. (A consensus among the critics was that the while quality of her singing is still resonant and stunning, her voice is not what it used to be.)

Cook herself noted that she is the last one standing (sitting actually) of the performers of her generation. With a touch of irony she informed us that Elaine Stritch (born February 2, 1925) has announced her retirement. She also speculated on the status of Chita Rivera (born January 23, 1933).

Cook noted that she recently dropped 30 pounds as in overall good health. Although life on the road is tough on a senior (e.g., the 15-hour travel day to get to Carmel, Indiana). Clearly it is a love of performing that keeps her going.

In addition to the wonderful music Feinstein and Cook performed, their dialogue was priceless for its passion for the music and their insights. Particularly revealing was the thought that it doesn’t take a great voice to be a great singer. As an example, they noted the great cabaret performer, Mabel Mercer. Cook explained how vocal coaches emphasize accenting the vowels. She demonstrated how Mercer changed and enhanced the cadence of a song with accents falling on consonants. She gave a couple of possible interpretations of lyrics.

During the great era of vaudeville and film noir, some of the greatest stars – from Fred Astaire to Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante – were not great singers. They knew, however, how to project, accent, interpret and sell a song. Feinstein jumped in with a hilarious parody of Durante.

Last summer, I saw Feinstein performing at Tanglewood with the Pops orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. In Carmel we experienced Feinstein in a different ambiance and mood. At Tanglewood he cavorted about fronting that full orchestra backing his band. It entailed a broadness of style and gesture to fill the Shed. This time he spent most of the evening tethered to his companion in an intimate, understated manner. Now and then, he would cut loose in a solo backed by a tight and swinging five piece band. In addition to a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, the performance was augmented by a multi-reed player (tenor sax, flute and clarinet) as well as a trumpeter.

Humorously, Cook commented that, "I don't need Mr. Trumpet Man, but Michael does." His style calls for brass where hers requires throaty reeds. The trio of musicians, it seems, regularly tour with her.

Cook did send chills up the spine with her rendition of the Barbra Streisand hit, “Here’s to Life.” Arguably, this Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary tune is the female equivalent of Sinatra’s iconic, rites of passage anthem, “My Way.” The audience was entranced and awarded a Standing O to lyrics that included:

No complaints and no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets
And I have learned that all you give is all you get
So give it all you've got

I had my share, I drank my fill
And even though I'm satisfied, I'm hungry still
To see what's down another road, beyond a hill
And do it all again

As Cook demonstrated so magnificently, what she has given up to age and range is more than made up for in the experience and feeling she brings to a song.

From Feinstein the highlight of the program was a stunning arrangement of “Somewhere” with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Cook’s longtime friend, Stephen Sondheim. Feinstein noted, significantly, that the Great American Songbook is constantly expanding as new material is written. However, Cook stated how she decided not to perform Don McLean’s 1971 “Vincent” because she did not agree with the lyrics. Her approach is for material which is life affirming.

The set alternated between solos and duets. Cook’s solos included: “The Nearness of You,” “Makin' Whoopie,” “If I Loved Again,” “Here’s to Life.” Feinstein’s solos were "Let Me Love You” and “Let There Be Love.” He accompanied himself on piano for “My Favorite Year.” Then came “Somewhere” and “A Lot of Living to Do.” Together, Cook and Feinstein performed “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “The Very Thought of You,” “Tea for Two,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Give Me the Simple Life.” For an encore they performed “Shine on Harvest Moon” with Feinstein inviting the audience to sing along.

It was a truly magnificent evening that we will long remember and treasure.

Photos by Charles Giuliano

Key Subjects: 
Barbara Cook, Michael Feinstein, Palladium, Carmel Indiana, Great American Songbook.
Charles Guiliano
March 2013
Celebrating The American Songbook at Carmel’s Palladium