It’s absolutely uncanny how Canadian pianist, actor, playwright, composer, producer, and director Hershey Felder can take on not only the persona of some of the world’s most admired musicians, but can actually look like them as well.
His biographical series, collectively titled Composers Sonata, includes Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Irving Berlin, and Leonard Bernstein, all of whom he portrays individually at venues around the world. He is currently presenting his one-man show “Maestro” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The Wallis will also host Felder’s newest production, “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” in the summer of 2017.
To get to Bernstein — one of the many innovations he is known for is his televised series of Young People’s Concerts in which he explained the intricacies of pieces of music as well as of the instruments being played by the members of the New York Philharmonic. It was one of these televised sessions that was being projected on a large background screen as the audience entered and found their seats.
When Felder arrived onstage he began his portrayal as the young Bernstein, the eldest of the three children of Russian-born Jennie and Samuel Bernstein. His father, Sam, was an aloof, demanding patriarch who spent his evenings reading Talmud in a chair that nobody else in the family was allowed to touch. He did, however, take Leonard to a piano concert that so enthralled the boy that he decided then and there to become a concert pianist.
After taking piano lessons for a time, his teacher claimed that he played better than she did and urged him to continue his lessons with a more accomplished teacher. But Sam, who didn’t approve, wouldn’t provide the $3 for the lessons. Leonard solved that problem by teaching his friends, for a small fee, to play the piano, and this provided him with enough money to continue his own lessons. Eventually Sam, whose advice consisted of the rebuke, “You need to be a person!” bought Leonard a baby grand. As the boy progressed he wondered, did his talent come from God or did it come from Beethoven? And is there really any difference?
Leonard, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, went to the prestigious Boston Latin School and then to Harvard as someone who was allowed to be one of the 10% quotas for Jewish students there. After graduation he brashly pursued some of the greatest musicians of the time, beginning with Dimitri Mitropoulis, who introduced him to Aaron Copland, who was one of Leonard’s heroes. He saw Copland as “Moses descending from the mountain with his tablets.” It was Copland who taught him that “notes mean something different to each person and they are different each time they are played.” And commenting on Leonard’s original compositions he observed, “You have recycled everyone — including me!”
After Copland he worked with Fritz Reiner, a 56-year-old “nasty Hungarian” who advised him to “expect to fail.” But it was Reiner, teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia who taught him about conducting. Then it was Serge Koussevitzky, with whom he fell “a little bit in love.” Koussevitzky became like a father to him and encouraged him to become his conducting assistant at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When Koussevitzky died Bernstein became head of the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood, and held this position for many years.
His conducting career actually started in 1943, when having recently been appointed assistant conductor to Artur Rodzinski of the New York Philharmonic, he was pressed into service on sudden notice-and without any rehearsal-after guest conductor Bruno Walter came down with the flu. Before the concert Walter advised him on the particular difficulties in the works he was to conduct, which Bernstein considered “a lesson in generosity.” That concert established Bernstein as a major player, as the concert was broadcast around the world and afterwards he began to receive invitations to conduct other orchestras.
On the personal level, he married the Chilean-born actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre in 1951, some say to dispel rumors about his homosexuality. He and Felicia had a happy marriage that produced three children, but he also had a number of intense homosexual relationships and at one point left Felicia to live with a man named Tommy Cothran. That relationship lasted less than a year, though; as Felicia developed cancer and Leonard moved back home to be with her.
In the end he wound up a disgruntled man, despite his tremendous successes in all sorts of genres and having provided audiences with ballets, operas (one, Candide, was a work in progress for 30 years), musicals such as “On The Town,” “Wonderful Town,” and “West Side Story,” film scores, symphonies, chamber music, and having won numerous awards, including eight Grammys, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, two Tonys and the Kennedy Center Honors. He was distressed because he felt that his conducting career had kept him from spending more time composing.
And he missed Felicia tremendously.
“Maestro Leonard Bernstein” was directed by Joel Zwick and can be seen at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 North Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through August 28th. Call (310) 748-4000 for tickets.