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Chicago by John Olson

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
Ravinia Festival

Also see John's review of Sunday In the Park With George

For the past ten years, Hershey Felder has created and performed a string of successful one-man shows celebrating composers, beginning with George Gershwin Alone and continuing through Monsieur Chopin and Beethoven As I Knew Him. It's possible that many of his audiences would have had little interest in the subjects of those pieces if not for the work of Leonard Bernstein, the symphony conductor who in the 1950s and '60s was a celebrity bigger than Lady Gaga. Thanks to the still relatively new medium of television—in an era before the fragmentation of TV audiences that we have today—Bernstein's televised "Young Peoples Concerts" made him America's music teacher in chief, introducing us to the classics of orchestral music even as Johnny Mathis' recording of Bernstein's "Maria" from West Side Story topped the popular music charts. So if Bernstein "made Felder's franchise possible," Felder returns the favor with his new piece, which he previewed for his first paying audiences at the Ravinia Festival's Martin Theater on September 5 and 7, 2010. Like Felder's earlier works, the actor-concert pianist-playwright performs a monologue as his subject and selections of the composer's work on the piano.

Performed with only a grand piano and a few chairs (and with the performer on book for portions of the nearly two-hour performance), Felder asked the audience to imagine a television studio with one of those big cumbersome old TV cameras in the corner. His framing device was to picture Bernstein addressing an audience for a TV show like "Omnibus," the commercially sponsored educational show that ran on each of the networks CBS, NBC and ABC at one point or another, and on which Bernstein appeared many times to give lectures on classical music. Assuming Bernstein's persona with an air of confidence and sophistication, Felder as Bernstein begins his lecture on theory with an example from West Side Story's "Somewhere," but quickly turns to his life story—explaining how he became interested in music and pursued a career in it despite his father's urging to pursue something more profitable and substantial, like the family business.

What begins as a story of a boy/young man seeking parental acceptance (which he ultimately receives), develops into the tale of Bernstein's struggle to achieve a personal goal—to follow Gershwin as the next great American composer. As Bernstein explains his studies of the great composers, he gives the audience lessons on the work as well. It's a structure by which Felder can pay tribute to his earlier subjects—playing selections from Beethoven's "Tempest" sonata and the composer's seventh symphony as well as a Chopin's nocturne. Turning to Gershwin, Bernstein says Rhapsody in Blue "isn't much of piece" but has great admiration for his Concerto in F, composed just a year later.

Bernstein's summary of his classical studies takes us through pieces by Mahler, Grieg, Schumann and Wagner. When Bernstein eventually plays a composition of his own for his new friend, the composer Aaron Copland, Copland encourages him to pursue conducting instead. Bernstein's work is too derivative, Copland tells him. His great knowledge of the classics would serve him better as a conductor. Bernstein follows that advice and his professional development leads him through the glamorous world of the concert hall in the 1930s and '40s. Felder briefly assumes the roles and European accents of famed conductors Fritz Reiner, Serge Koussevitsky and Dimitri Mitropoulos.

At age 25, having just been appointed as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein led the orchestra in concert for the first time, substituting for the legendary Bruno Walter, who had taken ill. Bernstein became an overnight sensation, but as Felder describes it, his popularity as a conductor and its demands on his time got in the way of his ambition to compose. Felder takes us through pieces of Bernstein's more serious efforts, including the Jeremiah symphony and his opera Trouble in Tahiti. Those of us who know Bernstein mainly for his contributions to musical theater may be disappointed that Felder includes no mention of the musicals he wrote with Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, Wonderful Town) or his ambitious, if unsuccessful, operetta Candide. Felder does a deep dig into West Side Story, though, showing Bernstein's enthusiasm for the innovations he was creating with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and the young Stephen Sondheim; even as Bernstein ultimately regrets that the musical—rather than his serious orchestral pieces—will ultimately become as his greatest legacy as a composer.

In this last half-hour or so of the nearly two-hour piece, Felder touchingly captures the sadness and regrets of a man who by any measure had a career as successful as could possibly be imagined. His disappointment at failing to receive the recognition he desired as a "serious" composer is matched by tragedy in his personal life, as he leaves his wife Felicia Montealegre to pursue a relationship with a younger man, trying to come to terms with his sexual orientation. He returns to her after she is taken ill with cancer, shortly before she succumbs to the disease, but he's racked with guilt over his earlier abandonment.

Maestro is a fascinating coda to Felder's earlier pieces. Its musical program, covering a range of 19th and 20th century composers, is an entertaining and satisfying tribute to the role of conductors in bringing music to audiences. Felder's earlier pieces celebrated the role of music as communal entertainment in earlier times. Bernstein, who brought music to so many through the mass medium of television, continued that tradition—a tradition which is in jeopardy as media audiences become increasingly fragmented and listening becomes more personal and experienced largely through headphones. Felder's unique abilities to perform the music on the piano and vocally, together with his characterizations of the people who created it, again make it a passionate, emotional experience. He makes classical music the activity of real people and real emotions.

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein was performed at the Ravinia Festival on September 5 and 7, 2010. A fully staged production of it will be open at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in November 2010.

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-- John Olson



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