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One man's musical tribute to Bernstein's genius

Hershey Felder performs the one-man musical play "Maestro: the Art of Leonard Bernstein," a tribute to the multitalented icon of American music.

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An undated photo of Leonard Bernstein in London.


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It is rare to find an artist with the sensitivity and technical tools to develop a musical play in which most of the narrative is delivered while playing the piano, sitting at the piano, or singing at the piano, all, of course, while embodying a historical icon.

But this is the task of actor/musician/playwright Hershey Felder, tackling Chopin, Beethoven, and Gershwin – to audience and critical acclaim. Felder performs at The Geffen Playhouse, an intimate Los Angeles cultural hub, in his latest project, "Maestro: the Art of Leonard Bernstein."

Felder once again manages to encapsulate a titanic figure and an epoch of American music in 90 minutes – despite his own sober assessment that “you can’t capture a life in an hour and a half.”

Like previous musical plays, the sprawling narratives of his characters' lives take a backseat to the musical narrative. Felder claims the only way to tell Bernstein's supersized, turbulent story, is through the music. “It’s the most direct and the most honest way,” he says.

Felder himself is uncannily equipped to bring this giant of the American musical world to life; his array of abilities (pianist, playwright, composer, actor, singer) amount to the ideal tool kit for this singular brand of storytelling.

Moments such as when Felder belts out lines over a virtuosic playing of the Liszt transcription of Wagner’s "Liebestod" on the piano evoke the energy and erudition Bernstein constantly displayed in the 1950s "Omnibus" television series or the 1973 Norton Lecture Series at Harvard University. Bernstein the musician, the man, and the educator are all on equal display.

While it seemed as if Bernstein habitually forced opposing magnets together – whether it was demonstrating the “foot” of a 12-bar blues by pointing out that Shakespeare sonnets fit like a glove, or creating a fugue out of Hanon (those “awful piano exercises”) to prove that it could be musical – Bernstein forever strove for the universal.

His career was all over the place, as a conductor, an educator, and composer. His compositions ran the gamut. His three symphonies are almost a lesson in universality with their rich range of references. Yet he often bemoaned the fact that the music he was most well known for was the genre-busting – and ultimately seminal – “West Side Story” score.

Felder says that Bernstein’s career, with its scope and erudition, will “probably never exist again.” The trove of educational documents he left behind in his music, television spots, and lectures remain as his legacy.

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(Hershey Felder performs in "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein" at the Geffen Playhouse until Dec. 12.)

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