By Corrie Glanville
Few contemporary theatre artists have the versatility of Hershey Felder, the Canadian-born pianist/singer/actor/conductor whose specialty is bringing seminal composers to life on stage, including Gershwin, Beethoven, Chopin, and most recently, Leonard Bernstein.
Felder, who began studying music and acting at the age of five in Montreal, had grown up listening to Bernstein and even met the composer before his death in 1990. But he actually knew little of George Gershwin (the subject of George Gershwin Alone)until he was 19 and performed “Rhapsody in Blue” at his concert debut in London. “Nothing prepared me for the live audience response,” said Felder. “I was very taken with how much the public loves Gershwin music. I played the Rhapsody again and again, and the public loves it, and this is true of any performance of it, not just mine.”
After consultation with the Gershwins who opened their archives and private collection to him, Felder embarked on years of research and the meticulous process of constructing a portrait of a popular figure that many either adored or despised. Felder has said that he created “the character of George Gershwin in order to tell the story of a man who died before truly knowing the depth of his contribution, and of course, had the opportunity to play a work that the public all over the world relishes.”
After being asked by respected colleagues to portray Leonard Bernstein, Felder gave the possibility much consideration before deciding to create Maestro, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2010. Like so many people, Felder was enormously influenced by Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, which served to bring classical music to a wider audience. But Felder also chose to delve into the darker side of Bernstein’s long and often turbulent life including his relationship with his father, his struggles with bisexuality and the antagonistic reception of his later work by critics and the public.