Thursday, June 9, 2011

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein

If a contemporary performer imitates, say, 19th-century composer Franz Liszt, who's to say they got it wrong? Recording technology didn't exist back then. For all we know, Liszt really did sound like Roger Daltry.

That doesn't apply to 20th-century composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. The maestro may be gone, but he left behind miles of film, audio recordings and videotapes. We know exactly what Bernstein sounded like -- and we'll know if a living performer portraying him misses the mark.

Hershey Felder is both the star and author of Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, a one-man show depicting Bernstein's life and work, now playing at the Asolo Rep. With a display of chutzpah Bernstein might approve of, Felder plays a clip from one of Bernstein's Young People's Concerts before he takes the stage. He's daring the audience to compare. Well, Felder meets and exceeds his self-made Pepsi challenge. His performance goes beyond great imitation to the realm of Shirley McClaine. He seems to be channeling the man.

Felder's performance takes the form of one of Bernstein's broadcasts -- in this case, presumably his final one. Playing and singing at a grand piano, Felder opens with one of Bernstein's burned-in-your-brain compositions from West Side Story -- namely, "Somewhere." From there, Felder's performance continues, alternating between snippets of Barnstein's compositions and his first-person autobiographical narrative -- lifted, I assume, from journal entries, magazine and TV interviews and stitched together with inference.

We learn that Bernstein came from an immigrant family of deeply religious Jews. That he was a musical prodigy. That his father didn't want his son to grow up to be a professional musician. That he did anyway. That Bernstein's proteg├ęs included Aaron Copland, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Fritz Reiner. That some of his proteg├ęs were also lovers. That his nearly overnight success was basically good luck. (And sounds like a Broadway musical premise -- he got his big break at a major concert because the other conductor was sick.) That Bernstein deeply resented a "two-bit reporter's hatchet job" about a benefit party he threw for the Black Panthers. (Referring to Tom Wolfe, actually.) That he admired Wagner's music, hated his anti-Semitic philosophy, but admired his honesty. That -- in defiance of the atonal fad of most serious composers and music critics of the time -- he loved melody. That he loved his wife Felicia. That -- in his own act of honesty -- Bernstein walked away from his wife and family to pursue openly gay relationships. That, tireless music educator and beloved conductor that he was, Bernstein wanted to be remembered as a composer -- and felt like a failure because the only Bernstein tunes anyone could remember were from West Side Story.

"Lives of the artists" dramas tend to take the same form. Basically, the artist is on a mission from God to create -- and they do. Felder's drama is more unconventional -- and mostly takes place in the brilliant, self-contradictory mind of the composer. Bernstein may be on a mission from God -- or actually be the God of modern music, as he claims at one point. But when the last note sounds, he's not sure if his mission succeeded.

The jury is still out. (I plan to listen to Bernstein's compositions the next chance I get.)

But Felder's mission clearly did.

It's a brilliant, unforgettable performance.

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
June 8-12
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
351-8000

Just for laughs, here's a link to Tom Wolfe's piece:


Radical Chic



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