note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
A man seated at a piano on a sparsely-decorated stage isn’t very exciting, until you realize the man is Hershey Felder, an amazing pianist-actor-writer, performing a one-man, one-act biographical show about incomparable conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein.
Felder has captivated audiences with his portrayals of Frederic Chopin and George Gershwin, (he’s returning as Gershwin in an encore performance to the Paramount Center, May 30 to June 10). However, as the controversial Bernstein, he’s electrifying.
Given that Bernstein hailed from Lawrence, attended Boston Latin High School, Harvard University, the Curtis Institute, led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and participated in the Berkshire Music Festival, the leonine maestro is one of us - our hero, our celebrity - who is considered among the most accomplished American composers. Since Bernstein died in 1990 at age 72, it’s too soon to determine whether he’ll be recorded in the annals of musical immortals, but he has an impressive head start.
Before the show starts, a clip of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, opus 67 beams in the background as Bernstein gives a music lesson. Felder enters, turns and faces that screen, then, as Bernstein, sits at the piano, explaining how a musical composition is constructed. “Welcome to my final concert program,” he says. He plays a few chords, showing similarities in musical styles, from classical to Jewish mystical. He talks, banters, tells anecdotes, sharing Bernstein’s passion for music, starting with his meshugie aunt’s upright piano and his wanting to play it when he was 10 years old, despite his father’s protests.
Felder lays the Jewish schmaltz on thickly. Bernstein was the eldest, first-born son of Russian immigrant, Samuel Joseph Bernstein, who wanted him to be something and make money - maybe even a rabbi. His austere, disapproving father worked, came home, ate dinner, then spent his evenings studying the Talmud, he says.
On the other hand, his mother Jennie’s personality was a stark contrast to his dad, he adds.
Bernstein outdid his music teachers and caught the attention of Serge Koussevitsky, who became his teacher for years. Bernstein was advised to become a conductor and landed a job with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The charismatic musician-director-educator also appeared on several TV programs and created a TV series for young people.
Felder neither glorifies nor idealizes Bernstein in “Maestro:Leonard Bernstein”. Against large background videos and photos, he highlights Bernstein’s dreams, failures, drive, ego, and burning desire to be a classical composer.
Reverentially, he plays a Wagner composition. “I’m everything he hated,” he cracks about the anti-Semitic German composer.
Catching the attention of prestigious conductors, Bernstein’s fame skyrocketed. He later traveled internationally and was invited to conduct the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic Symphony and others.
Felder fingers, caresses the piano keys, gently touching them while playing magnificent sonatas, concertos, and Bernstein’s greatest hits, including earlier works, “Jeremiah,” “Kaddish,” (for JFK), “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “Candide,” (currently enjoying a resurgence), and “Maria,” “Somewhere” and “Tonight” from his greatest international triumph, “West Side Story”.
Bernstein was married to beautiful Chilean actress Felicia Cohn-Montealegre for many years, and had three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina, with her. Besides his outspoken political and social activism, which Felder alludes to but doesn’t dwell upon, Bernstein flaunted his affairs with other men. Hanging his head, he’s remorseful about hurting other people, especially for humiliating Felicia.
As Bernstein, Felder tells all. He doesn’t whitewash anything and makes no excuses. He brilliantly and honestly tells Bernstein’s story, earning a standing ovation.
BOX INFO: One-man, one-act, one hour-45 minute show,written and performed by Hershey Felder, directed by Joel Zwick, extended by popular demand to May 20, with ArtsEmerson, at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington St., Boston. Performances: Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1,5 p.m.; Tuesday,Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets:$25-$89. Visit www.artsemerson.org or call 617-824-8400.