January 22, 2019

Carrying Bernstein’s baton

The multitalented Hershey Felder estimates that he has personified Leonard Bernstein some 600 times in “Maestro,” and, he jokes, “I am actually beginning to know my lines.”

Audiences will be able to check on Felder’s claim when “Maestro” opens Aug. 10 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts for an 18-day run before heading to New York.

Even those who have previously seen Felder’s tribute to the brilliant conductor and composer — in Felder’s trademark concert/play form — will find different nuances and characterizations in the upcoming presentation.

“The tone of each performance depends on the reaction of the audience, so my job never gets easier, only harder,” Felder said in an interview, but the hoped-for result, he said, is “a more realized piece.”

Some six years ago, when “Maestro” ran at the Geffen Playhouse, one stunning moment came when Felder, as Bernstein’s alter ego onstage, and the conductor himself on a large screen in an old film clip, joined in a seamless piano duet from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

The fusion between the historic Bernstein and Felder’s stage characterization was so complete that when talking to Felder about his own family background, a Journal reporter unwittingly transferred Bernstein’s childhood reminiscences onto Felder.

However, there are some actual resemblances between the two men. Both grew up in Yiddish-speaking households, sons of Eastern European immigrants and in tight-knit Jewish communities; Bernstein was from the Boston area and Felder is a native of Montreal.

“Maestro” works on various levels. One is as a biographical tour of Bernstein, the musician, from precocious youngster to Harvard graduate (part of the 10 percent Jewish quota), to assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

There is the historical date of Nov. 14, 1943, when, in a pure Hollywood fantasy, a hung-over Bernstein is awakened by a phone call telling him that conductor Bruno Walter has suddenly fallen ill and that he, the 25-year old Lenny, must wield the baton at 3 p.m. that very day.

Bernstein, of course, triumphed, and the rest is history.

“Maestro” introduces the great conductors who influenced Bernstein, each infused by Felder with a distinct personality and different European accent.

We meet the likes of Walter Damrosch, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Reiner (“with the permanent expression of a man who had sex once and didn’t like it”), Walter, and, above all, the beloved Serge Koussevitzky.

On another level, there is Bernstein the composer, whose works such as Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah,” “Dybbuk Suites” and Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish” reflected his deep Jewish roots.

A world-famous classical conductor, Bernstein also turned to the musical stage, with works ranging from “On the Town” to “Candide” and the triumphant “West Side Story,” the latter a modern version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Originally, Bernstein cast the warring clans as Jews versus Catholics, but cooler heads prevailed, “so we threw out the Jews and brought in the Puerto Ricans,” Bernstein is quoted as saying.)

On the third level, there is Bernstein, the complex and conflicted human being. He was happily married to his beloved Felicia, the mother of his three children, but he took few pains to hide his various liaisons with men.

“Maestro” opens with Bernstein on his deathbed, and Felder believes that for all the worldly acclaim, the celebrated musician pronounced a harsh judgment on himself. Perhaps his greatest sorrow was that he never composed the one masterpiece that would immortalize his name, Felder said.

In his later years, “Bernstein also suffered from strong feelings of guilt,” Felder believes. “He shoved [his affairs with men] down Felicia’s throat, and he didn’t care how devastated she was.”

“Maestro” runs nearly two hours without intermission, and the sheer physical stamina required for the one-man play is astonishing. Even more so because Felder throws himself into the role with unreserved physical and emotional passion, which stops just short of going over the top.       

In addition, Felder provides an important educational service to his audience by transmitting a real feeling for the creative processes underlying the arts of conducting and composition.

Over a span of 19 years and some 4,500 stage performances, Felder has also interpreted the lives and works of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, in addition to presenting his own works, including the concerto “Aliyah,” the opera “Noah’s Ark” and “Love Songs of the Yiddish Theatre.”

Next on Felder’s intense schedule is his musical and biographical homage to “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” which will touch down in San Diego, Laguna Beach and Los Angeles next year.

“Maestro,” directed by Joel Zwick, will benefit the Wallis on Aug. 10, opening night, inlcuding a pre-show supper and post-show toast with Felder. The show runs Aug. 10-28 at The Wallis, with Felder interspersing “The Great American Songbook Sing-Along” on Aug. 22. 

For show times and ticket information,