Friday, July 8, 2016

Hershey Felder as "Maestro"

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
The Classical Experience -- 'Maestro"

One of the most enjoyable musical experiences of the year – and certainly the prolific Hershey Felder’s best Composer’s Sonata profile* so far – plays at San Diego Repertory only through July 17, so you’d better take action to be there. The fully ripe and satisfying work is on to a New York engagement in September at 59e59, and Felder will not return to San Diego until January, when he presents his Tchaikovsky at the Rep.

Hershey Felder (Bernstein in background)
Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” is a lavishly detailed survey of Bernstein’s wondrous and tragic artistic and personal life, in which the composer/conductor’s desires were completely thwarted, in which he amassed knowledge from the best, enjoyed the pleasures of home and hearth and children, and yet was frustrated by lack of satisfaction in two areas.

After achieving fame as the composer of West Side Story, Bernstein (1918-1990) wanted first and foremost to be recognized as a serious classical composer. Right up there with that desire, but certainly not overt, was his eventual acceptance and fulfillment of his lifelong bisexuality. After many years of happy marriage and three children, Bernstein left his wife, Felicia, for a short-lived relationship with Tom Cothran. Soon after, Felicia contracted cancer and died in 1978. The remorseful Bernstein returned, and they share a redemptive parting at her deathbed. Felder also gives us some idea of Bernstein’s Ukrainian-Jewish roots, including his disapproving father, afraid his son would never be able to support himself as a musician.

At an early age, Bernstein fell in love with his cousin Lillian’s grand piano. He took $1 piano lessons from a teacher whose talents he surpassed in a year. Then it was on to $3 piano lessons he paid for himself by teaching, and then, on to playing for parties while at Harvard University. These brought him connections with conducting and composing royalty such as Aaron Copland, Fritz Reiner, Dmitri Mitropoulos, and Serge Koussevitzky (who took him to Tanglewood), and Bruno Walter. Their influence was profound and some  may have been his lovers. 
At age 25 when Bernstein was “ready to conduct the universe,” he got an emergency call to conduct the New York Philharmonic in a worldwide radio broadcast of (among others) Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture and Richard Strauss’s Don Quichotte. A little more than 10 years later, he became the conductor of that orchestra, and later became renowned for his television series, “Young People’s Concerts.”

The glory of Felder’s work is his integration of story and glorious music by Gustav Mahler (Bernstein was his champion), Wagner (Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde) and Gershwin (piano works), plus, at telling moments, his own music (“Someday” from 1957’s Broadway phenomenon, West Side Story). He both sings and plays parts of all this music and presents a soft-spoken Bernstein, as he says, for us to love or hate. But certainly to admire.

Hershey Felder conducts as Bernstein
Bernstein’s own compositions have yet to be fully recognized for their genius. Among my favorites are his Mass, performed here locally by La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, and of course his much revised opera/operetta Candide.

Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” is directed by Joel Zwick, with scenic design by Fran├žois-Pierre Couture, lighting and projection design by Christopher Ash, sound design/line projection by Erik Carstensen, and associate direction by Trevor Hay.

Performances Wednesdays through Sundays through July 17. www.sdrep.org or 619-544-1000. If you go, be aware that the elevator that takes one from Street level to the theatre is not in operation. Ask for special assistance by phoning the box office.

News Flash, July 10: From one who knows, the elevator is now in operation. Still a good idea to phone. 

*Others in the Composers Sonata series are Beethoven, Irving Berlin, Frederic Chopin, George Gershwin, Franz Liszt, and soon, Tchaikovsky.



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