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Theater Review: "Maestro"

Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein
Photo credit:
San Diego Repertory Theatre

Leonard Bernstein is one of the best known and best loved of American composers, remembered by all for his sparkling score for the classic musical “West Side Story.” But he always wanted to be known as a serious composer – which he also was.

That’s just one of the conflicts of this great American original. Now Hershey Felder, who is making a career doing one-man shows about musical figures, is back in town for a short run of his one-man Bernstein show “Maestro,” playing through July 17 at San Diego Repertory Theatre as part of the annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival.

Before the show opens, Bernstein as teacher is seen on video discussing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with the help of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. That was another of his many faces.

Bernstein’s colorful life helped make “Maestro” one of Felder’s best shows. Born in Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian immigrant who wanted his son to be a “mensch” but not a musician, the son was consigned to his “noisy” piano practice in the hallway of the family home.

Though a gifted pianist, composition was Bernstein’s first love. When George Gershwin died in 1937, Lenny decided to be his successor – and the next great American composer.

When he bumped into Aaron Copland at a Carnegie Hall concert, he showed the composer a youthful composition, which Copland declared “crap,” and advising the boy to study conducting at the Curtis Institute with Fritz Reiner.

At Tanglewood in 1940, Bernstein met conductor Serge Koussevitzky and “fell in love with this balding, aging genius who became the father I never had.”

Koussevitzy was responsible for Bernstein’s expansive conducting style; It was he who counseled the young genius to “conduct with your whole body.”

Felder ignores neither Bernstein’s sexual ambivalence nor the heavy price he paid in guilt after he left his 25-year marriage for a gay relationship that lasted less than a year.

To his disappointment, Bernstein was in much greater demand as conductor than composer. He made it a point to program contemporary composers, but sadly notes, “I conducted these serious atonal composers all over the world, but they never accepted me as one of their own.”

Bernstein may have been a reluctant conductor, but he was an American original who influenced what the world heard and how they understood it. In this sense, he and Felder were colleagues.

The details

“Maestro” plays through July 17, 2016 at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Friday at 8 pm.; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or sdrep.org