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Impresario Introduced D.C. To World's Stars

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006

Martin Feinstein, 84, who, as the first executive director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and later as the long-serving general manager of the Washington National Opera sought to transform Washington into a capital of culture, died yesterday at his home in Potomac. He had pancreatic cancer.

Feinstein spent 25 years in New York as a top assistant to Sol Hurok, the legendary impresario who brought the world's finest concert artists and ballet companies to American audiences. During the Cold War, Feinstein was largely responsible for ensuring Hurok's near monopoly as a presenter of Soviet dancers, including the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets.

When Igor Moiseyev's Soviet folk-dance group was about to appear at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1958, Feinstein developed an effective publicity strategy to avoid any political questions from the media.

He told Hurok's biographer, Harlow Robinson: "When Moiseyev arrived, I told him I wanted a press conference. I want three or four of your most beautiful girls. I want someone who's a mother, who's left a child behind in the Soviet Union, in the care of a grandma; I want a beautiful girl who has a boyfriend she's left behind; I want someone who's a newlywed, and so on and so forth, and I'm going with this to the editors of the women's pages."

The U.S. tour was a sensation, one of many presentations that paid off handsomely for the Hurok organization. Disagreements over financial arrangements led Feinstein in 1971 to accept a new job in Washington, working as deputy to then-Kennedy Center Chairman Roger L. Stevens.

As Stevens's No. 2 man for the next eight years, Feinstein designed festivals and other programming efforts for the new arts center. Although Stevens usually served as the public face, Feinstein emerged ebulliently every December when he took the baton for the "Hallelujah" chorus during the "Messiah" singalong concert series.

A Washington Post music critic noted the speed at which Feinstein conducted and jokingly suggested it may have been from fear of having to pay overtime for the freelance orchestra.

Funding for the center was a continual concern for Feinstein, especially as he stated a wish to remake Washington as an arts capital competitive with New York and Vienna. At great expense, he arranged for visits by the Bolshoi, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the Berlin Opera, the Vienna State Opera and La Scala opera company.

Getting La Scala was an ordeal that required lobbying the Italian government, which briefly reneged on a deal, and persuading the stage employee union in Washington to agree to a temporary moratorium on a planned wage increase.

Feinstein also had a major role in the planning and construction in 1979 of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, which he saw as a more intimate alternative to the center's large Opera House.

The Kennedy Center continued to have budget deficits, reportedly a factor in Feinstein's departure not long after the Terrace Theater's opening.

He jumped to the Washington Opera and spent the next 16 years luring artists of the stature of Gian Carlo Menotti (who directed "La Boheme"), Daniel Barenboim (who conducted "Cosi Fan Tutte") and Placido Domingo (who debuted in Washington in 1986 with Menotti's "Goya").

However, when the board had the chance to replace him with Domingo, whose star luster would further smooth fundraising efforts, it was arranged for Feinstein to leave his post early. His generous public statements about his successor were well-reported as Feinstein maintained an active presence on the city's artistic and social circuits.

During performances, Feinstein was often seen quietly conducting from his seat -- which some saw as his need to control his surroundings and others saw as an obvious enthusiasm for the music.

His friend Isaac Stern once told The Post: "Marty always wanted to be an artist -- no matter what he says. . . . He can be awesomely arrogant sometimes, yes. But behind all that, what makes him a great impresario and the others just managers is his reverence -- almost childlike -- for the performer."

Martin Feinstein was born April 12, 1921, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. His parents were Russian immigrants, and his father operated a "cafeteria shanty" for longshoremen.

At age 10, Feinstein began violin lessons and later spoke of Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler as "gods to me." Nicknamed Beethoven by his friends, he majored in music at the City College of New York and received a master's degree in music from Wayne State University in Detroit.

He later said he abandoned his musical ambitions because "if I worked very, very hard, I might wind up on the last desk of a second-string section -- second fiddle section -- in a provincial orchestra, and I decided this was not really what was going to make me happy."

After Army service -- he wrote for the newspaper Stars and Stripes in Hawaii -- he returned to New York and was hired at Hurok's firm as a junior press and publicity agent.

Feinstein called on his technical musical background to nurture artists. He once worked three years with the Stuttgart Ballet to plan its U.S. debut, not only choosing its production (Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin") but also using his musical expertise to make script changes. The result was a critical sensation at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1969.

In Washington, he concentrated also on wooing world-class artists. He spoke of many near misses, including the time Sir Georg Solti almost agreed to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doing Wagner's full "Ring" cycle at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

He told the Washington Times that the conductor backed out at the last minute because he wanted to spend more time with his family in London, particularly with his school-age children. Feinstein said: "The last thing he told me about our 'Ring' was, 'If the education thing doesn't work out, maybe we can do it after all.' "

In 1980, he took over the directorship of the Washington Opera from an ailing George London, a former opera singer.

During Feinstein's tenure, he greatly increased the number of performances per season, which had a phenomenal effect on ticket sales (the audience reportedly grew from 32,000 to more than 100,000).

He traveled frequently to cities including London and Cologne, Germany, to stay current. In 1992, he brought recently retired Berlin State Opera maestro Heinz Fricke to the Washington Opera as music director.

In retirement, Feinstein was an arts consultant and also had fun as a roving opera critic for the National Endowment for the Arts, helping judge grant applicants. He also began an antiquing business.

His marriage to Ruth Benjamin Feinstein ended in divorce. His second wife, Bernice Richman Feinstein, whom he married in 1952, died in 1993.

Survivors include his wife of 11 years, Marcia Teller Feinstein; three children from his second marriage, John Feinstein of Potomac, Margaret Feinstein of Arlington and Bob Feinstein of McLean; a brother; a sister; and six grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company