A Legacy of Joy to the Last Note

By John Feinstein
Monday, February 6, 2006

During my senior year of college I took a political science class from a professor named David Paletz, who was, to put it politely, less than impressed with the fact that I frequently missed his class because I was on the road covering basketball games for the student newspaper. One day, after I had actually shown up, he stopped me as I was leaving.

"Are you related," he asked, "to Martin Feinstein?"

"He's my dad."

Professor Paletz shook his head sadly. "Your father is Martin Feinstein and you spend your time at basketball games? Don't you understand who he is?"

The answer was yes -- sort of. By the time I graduated from college I understood that my father was the executive director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I certainly had a sense that my childhood had been remarkably privileged, that I had always been in the best seats at the Metropolitan Opera House, Carnegie Hall and all the Broadway theaters. I had even figured out that a home frequently visited by people such as Isaac Stern, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Arthur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, and Daniel Barenboim wasn't exactly typical. One night I came home to find Victor Borge making up songs at the piano surrounded by Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and my parents.

Of course I would have preferred Tom Seaver, Willis Reed and Joe Namath.

Only as an adult, probably in the years when Dad was general director of the Washington National Opera, did I come to truly appreciate not only who he was and what he had accomplished but also how remarkable a life he led.

He grew up in Brooklyn, a Depression kid whose father managed a cafeteria frequented by longshoremen. He went to the City College of New York because his parents couldn't afford the Ivy League education he craved. When he came home after the war, he landed a job as an assistant publicity director for the great impresario Sol Hurok -- "glorified office boy" was the way he described his early work. But he rose quickly to be PR director for Hurok and, eventually, his most trusted lieutenant.

It was during a scouting mission to Europe for Hurok in 1966 that he discovered John Cranko's fledgling Stuttgart Ballet and became convinced it was destined to become the world's next great ballet company. He persuaded Hurok to bring the Stuttgart in 1969. Hurok was skeptical. He already had the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets under his wing, so why another ballet company?

My parents took me to opening night at the Metropolitan Opera House. I could sense my father's tension: Would the vaunted New York critics agree with his judgment? By the end of Act I of "Eugene Onegin," the audience was screaming. As I followed my father up the aisle -- he was 5 foot 9 but the world's fastest walker, especially when en route backstage -- Hurok, who always sat in the back row of the orchestra, stopped him. He put his hand behind my father's head and said, "All right, Martin." That was Hurok for "you did well."

When Roger L. Stevens offered Dad the chance to run the newly opened Kennedy Center, he decided it was time to try Washington. I know I am biased, but I think if you check the clips, you will find that his record there was remarkable. He was responsible for the American debuts of three of the world's great opera companies: La Scala, the Bolshoi Opera and the Berlin Opera. For such great companies to come to the United States -- and not go to New York -- was considered impossible. When the Italian government threatened to back out of the La Scala engagement, Dad flew to Italy, turned things around and came home to report proudly (and repeatedly): "I told them I wouldn't take no for an aria."

It was also Dad who came up with the idea of a "sing-in" each year of Handel's "Messiah," having people walk into the concert hall a couple of days before Christmas, most carrying librettos, to participate with an orchestra, chorus and soloists in the performance. He was asked if he wanted to conduct the "Hallelujah Chorus." Always a frustrated conductor, he accepted -- and did it for 34 years, the last time this past December.


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