By Jane Rosenberg
Hershey Felder, like Leonard Bernstein, the subject of his one-man musical play, is a passionate educator, offering general audiences musical insight into the creative process of composers from Irving Berlin to Beethoven. With skillful piano technique, nuanced vocals, and strong acting chops, Felder explores Bernstein’s life and times.
What was most engaging, in this production, on view at the Wallis through August 28, was the depiction of Bernstein’s creative life in music. Raised by a religious father, Bernstein was steeped in the music of the synagogue; and Felder, channeling Bernstein and his cantankerous father, tied together Jewish mysticism, modal Hebrew music, and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. It was moments like this that offered true excitement and enlightenment.
Problems arose when Felder covered too much of Bernstein’s biography. Without choosing to focus on a particular time in the conductor’s life, the play became a laundry list of events from his Bar Mitzvah to his last concert. Towards the end of the hour and forty-five minutes, Felder made a rather perplexing connection to Wagner. Playing a piano transcription of “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde, Felder as Bernstein remarked that what drove his music was a search for love. There was a puzzling equation made between Wagner’s vocal anti-Semitism and being true to oneself as a pre-requisite for achievement. From this Felder as Bernstein exclaimed, his love for men had to be acknowledged and accepted for him to be true to himself and create enduring music.
It is when Felder explored Bernstein’s development as a conductor from his early meeting of Aaron Copland through his tutelage under such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Serge Koussevitzky that we experienced Felder’s comedic skills. His portrayals were not only engaging, but also supplied us with insights into Bernstein’s musical development, his drive for success, and his later disappointments as a composer.
Felder offered us a glimpse into the passions and psychic disturbances of this towering figure of American musical life – a conductor who galvanized audiences both on the concert stage and on television with his unceasing enthusiasm and his desire to educate the public with CBS’s Young People’s Concerts and the Omnibus series in the 1950’s.
The simple but effective set design with a piano, chairs, and a backdrop on which video was displayed established the world of the composer. It was on the backdrop that one of Bernstein’s TV appearances was projected as the audience awaited the performance. Even with people entering to find their seats and the noise level of an audience settling itself, Bernstein presented a riveting figure as he described various aspects of music theory.
Felder spent much of the evening at the piano playing Greig, Beethoven, Gershwin, Copland, Mahler, and Wagner. Of Bernstein’s music he played his more popular work – selections from West Side Story, On the Town and the charming “I Hate Music” – and only a small sampling of his classical music. What was missing was more of Bernstein’s output of classical work, many of it unfamiliar to a wide audience. That would have been truly illuminating and would have served the goals and talents of both Felder and Bernstein.
Music: Bernstein, Beethoven, Greig, Gershwin, Copland, Mahler, Wagner, and others
Direction: Joel Zwick
Scenic Design: François-Pierre Couture
Lighting & Projection Design: Christopher Ash
Sound Design: Erik Carstensen
Production: Trevor Hay
Leonard Bernstein: Hershey Felder
To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
.Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets