SAN DIEGO JEWISH JOURNAL
What do George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Hershey Felder have in common? They’re all NJBs, of course (Nice Jewish Boys), the sons of Eastern European immigrants. All were piano prodigies who became prolific composers. And they’re all the same person. For a while, at least. Onstage at the Old Globe (July 1-Aug. 28).
The Montreal-born, Paris-based Felder wowed local audiences before with his musical bio-plays about Chopin (2006) and Beethoven (2008). Now he’s here with his latest creation: “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” and “George Gershwin Alone” is back by popular demand (previously here in 2006 and 2008).
Felder has a special affinity for Gershwin (1898-1937) and Bernstein (1918-1990).
“We’re from very different generations,” he says. “But I understand intrinsically and very specifically what it’s like to be from a first-generation North American family.”
Felder grew up speaking three languages -– English, French and Yiddish. Montreal had a “large, significant Jewish community, important and very generous and philanthropic,” he reports.
His family was frum (observant), and he attended the Hebrew Academy of Montreal (“very much like a yeshiva”) through high school. He studied briefly at McGill University in Montreal, but obtained most of his classical music training through apprenticeships.
He began playing piano at age 6. Just after his bar mitzvah, his 35 year-old mother died of breast cancer, leaving his father, who ran a kosher products business, to raise him and his younger sister.
In 1994, Felder was in Los Angeles, working with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, interviewing Holocaust survivors so their oral histories could be catalogued on film. One year later, he was invited to take part in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland.
Back in the States, he was invited to present a concert performance at the Canadian Consular Residence in L.A., in honor of Kim Campbell, Canada’s 19th, youngest — and only female — Prime Minister. Their meeting is kind of legendary.
“It’s true,” Felder admits. “It was love at first sight. When I came to prepare the concert, that was it. We’ve been together ever since. Kim’s not Jewish, though she’s very, very Jewish. Her first husband was Jewish, and she grew up in Vancouver, and lived in a very Jewish environment. She travels with me a lot, though she’s an international mover-and-shaker in her own right.” ( In addition to directing several publicly-traded companies in high technology and biotechnology, Campbell, a lawyer/diplomat/professor/writer, has served as chair of the Council of Women World Leaders and president of the International Women’s Forum.
At home or on the road, Felder still practices piano every day, for hours (“I have to!”). He has composed symphonic music, an opera, an “ Aliyah Concerto on Israeli Themes,” and he’s currently working on two musicals, one about Lincoln and one set in 19th century Paris. But he’s best known for his unique brand of musical/biographical entertainment, the three-part ‘Composer Sonata’ he’s performed thousands of times, around the world, for the past 15 years.
“I don’t really define what I do,” Felder insists. “I find it most important that I tell a good story. I’m proud of what it is I do; let other people define it, they should live and be well.”
Rhapsody in Gershwin
For “George Gershwin Alone,” Felder spent five years researching the great composer, playing his Steinway, acquiring and perfecting the precise piano style and getting access to the family archives. By all accounts, he looks uncannily like Gershwin and pounds on the piano just like him. Felder displays a good deal of Gershwin’s bravado, and the same passion for his instrument. He exhibits a palpable joy when he’s about to demonstrate something on the piano, just as Gershwin reportedly did.
By blending traditional music with folk and jazz, Gershwin changed the American musical landscape and the American musical songbook. According to Felder, “he brought dance music into the concert hall, and made a ‘lady out of jazz.’”
In his short, 38-year lifes (he died at age 38, of an undiagnosed brain tumor), Gershwin penned 1000 songs, spanning wildly diverse genres, from Tin Pan Alley pop to opera, movie scores and orchestral pieces. His brother Ira was his lyricist.
“He wasn’t just my brother,” Felder says in the play. “He was my other half. We were two parts of one brain.”
According to Felder, Gershwin’s closest friend, composer and pianist Kay Swift, “often commented that if one wanted to know George, one simply had to understand his music. It is therefore my intention to present him in this way – joyous, entertaining, in love with music and maybe even himself (just a little…), but above all, always reaching for something fresh and new.”
Felder’s Gershwin play gives thrilling little glimpses into the songwriting process – why a certain note or chord or key was chosen, and how that made the tune unpredictable and unique. And at home, we learn, Gershwin had something of a stereotypical Jewish mother.
“Why can’t you get good reviews like Irving Berlin ?, ” she reportedly complained. “He makes his mother proud!”
The composer had some detractors among the professional critics, too, and he was the butt of a famously racist, anti-Semitic rant by Henry Ford (decrying the African and Jewish influences in contemporary American music) , which also finds its way into the script. But mostly, it’s about the music, with glorious renditions of “Bess You Is My Woman” (from “Porgy and Bess”) to “ Swanee ,” “I Got Rhythm” and “An American in Paris,” culminating in a breathtaking performance of the complete “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Felder thought he was done with Gershwin (“I’m already four years older than he was when he died!”). But he knows how much folks love the show, the man and his music, so by special request, he’s bringing it back to the Globe.
After the Beethoven piece, which Felder premiered in San Diego (“I try to premiere every show in a different city”), Felder thought he was finished with his ‘Composer Sonata’, too.
Begging for Bernstein
“But everyone kept pestering me about Bernstein,” Felder says. “‘He’s so contemporary.’ ‘He’s so interesting.’ I wasn’t sure. But it’s become the most successful of the lot.
“Yes, there’s schmutz (dirt) in it, so people like it. Lenny had a lot of tsouris (trouble). Anything he touched had some form of tsouris attached to it. He was a complicated character, with lots of contradictions.
“Maybe the public and the critics love the show because there’s some ugly stuff in it. But the message comes through: that living is hard, and working is hard, and making money and being successful can be hard. Sometimes, the bigger the job, the bigger the problems. Nothing is easy.”
As always, Felder did his research, and presents the well-known aspects of Bernstein’s life and career: gifted conductor , composer , author , music lecturer and pianist , with a long tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic , conducting most of the world’s leading orchestras, and composing the musicals “ West Side Story ,” “ Candide
,” “Wonderful Town” and “On the Town ,” as well as symphonies, ballet music, operas, chamber music and choral works. Bernstein made a name for himself as the first conductor to give regular television lectures on classical music, from 1954 until his death in 1990. But Felder, as he said, doesn’t shy away from the tsouris, the troubled, bisexual, complex, contradictory and self-destructive aspects of Bernstein’s life. He even had a brief encounter with Bernstein.
“I was in that circle in New York,” Felder says. “I met him just at the end of his life. I was just a kid. It was interesting to create this piece, especially with the family members still around. I panicked when they came to see the show. But it was fine. There were a lot of tears.”
Some have questioned if it’s too early to know whether, as Felder puts it, “as a composer [Bernstein] is a Beethoven, Chopin or Gershwin. Or not. His legacy is what the play ponders. What will it be? It’s hard to know. They say it takes a hundred years to know for sure.”
When he isn’t portraying Gershwin or Bernstein, Felder will be playing their music in another presentation at the Old Globe: “ Hershey Felder in Concert: The Great American Songbook,” which offers a century of classics, and also includes the work of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. (Quite a few NJBs in that group, too).
“I’ve crossed the boundary of being just a Jewish artist,” he says. “I get to present Jewish artists in a broad format, and my work appeals to a broad spectrum of people. There’s something very wonderful about that. I never shy away from who I am or who they are. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. For me, the most powerful way to be an ambassador is just to be.”