BWW Review: Hershey Felder in MAESTRO: LEONARD BERNSTEIN
Music and Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein & Others, Book by Hershey Felder, Directed by Joel Zwick; Scenic Design/Lighting Design/Projection Design, François-Pierre Couture; Projection Design, Andrew Wilder; Sound Design, Erik Carstensen; Lighting Director/Assistant Lighting Design, Margaret Hartmann; Production Manager/Technical Director, Matt Marsden; Production Stage Manager, Nate Genung; Production Consultant, Jeffrey Kallberg, Ph.D.
Performances through May 20 by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org
Imagine if the singular accomplishment of your life was having been the composer of West Side Story; now imagine feeling dissatisfied with that and you know something about the enigma of Leonard Bernstein. Hershey Felder delves into the man behind the music, examining the musical and personal influences that shaped the great American composer/conductor, and brings him to life for one final concert at the Paramount Center Mainstage in Maestro: Leonard Bernstein.
In his original play with music, Felder does not impersonate; rather, he projects the persona of Bernstein with the deep resonance of his voice and by showing the passion, persistence, intelligence, and curiosity of his subject. Most of all, Felder transports us into Bernstein’s music, whether he is conducting orchestral recordings or seated at the grand piano, lovingly stroking the keys like a sculptor molding his clay. The musical selections begin and end with West Side Story, and feature songs from his other Broadway shows (On the Town, Candide), but provide a good balance with his classical, albeit lesser known, compositions.
Felder’s book covers the arc of Bernstein’s life, from his origins as the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Lawrence, Massachusetts, through his education at the prestigious Boston Latin School and Harvard University, his professional development studying conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and his fruitful association with Conductor Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute at Tanglewood. Great emphasis is placed on the influence of the latter as a father figure to Bernstein, mentoring him with his emotional way of interpreting music, as well as the friendship he shared with composer Aaron Copland.
Although he aspired to be “the next great American composer,” Bernstein achieved phenomenal success as a conductor, starting with his debut at sudden notice when he led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in place of the ailing Bruno Walter on November 14, 1943, a concert that gave him instant fame due to its national radio broadcast. Guest appearances in front of other national and international orchestras followed, and he was named music director of the NY Philharmonic in 1957. During this period Bernstein began a series of Young People’s Concerts for CBS television, an influential series of music appreciation programs that arguably designated him as the world’s music teacher.
Bernstein’s personal and professional lives were fully-lived and rich with experiences from which Felder has culled a variety of vignettes to share. He does not avoid the man’s foibles and flaws, using them to advantage in exploring his motivations. As illustrated in the stories of many men, Bernstein’s father played a role in his desire to prove himself. His sexual tendencies affected his lifelong pursuit of love, in his relationships and in his music. Felder briefly portrays family members and other significant people to suggest conversations they might have had, all in the service of presenting a nuanced portrait.
As a solo performer, Felder is joined onstage by the black and white images of Bernstein projected on a large screen behind the piano. François-Pierre Couture (Scenic, Lighting, and Projection Design) and Andrew Wilder (Projection Design) bring the aura of cinema as well as concert to the program, and Erik Carstensen’s Sound Design fills the hall with all of the delicacy and dynamism inherent in the musical selections. Veteran theatrical and Hollywood director Joel Zwick artfully combines the talents of Felder and the multimedia elements to craft Maestro into a play that finds drama and emotion not only in the musical selections, but in-between the notes, as well.
In a Wikipedia entry, Bernstein is described as composer, conductor, author, music lecturer and pianist. Felder is also a hyphenated artist: pianist, actor, playwright, composer, and producer. I would add that he is a musicologist with an historian’s thirst for discovering the influences and underpinnings of the renowned artists who have come before him. He has previously given the solo treatment to George Gershwin (George Gershwin Alone will run May 30 - June 10 at ArtsEmerson), Chopin, and Beethoven. Although it may be too soon after his death to determine his place in the musical pantheon, Maestro: Leonard Bernstein is a worthy addition to the Felder canon.