Hershey Felder plays Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, a one-man show about music and love told through the life events of the composer/conductor. I had heard of Mr. Felder’s one-man shows based on Beethoven, Gershwin, Chopin, Liszt, and Cole Porter but had seen none of them.
This show about Bernstein introduces us to the musicians who established 20th-century American classical music. The figure of Serge Koussevitzky made a great impression upon me.
Koussevitzky is the reason the Boston Symphony is the Boston Symphony. He built the organization into one of America’s “Big Five” (along with New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Chicago) while commissioning some of the greatest music composed in the 20th Century, such as Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and several pieces by Prokofiev.
Koussevitzky also founded the Tanglewood Festival and mentored Leonard Bernstein. This relationship in the Hershey Felder show was expressed as the supportive father Bernstein never had. Bernstein’s father discouraged his musical aspirations until Bernstein’s triumphant debut with the New York Philharmonic.
Koussevitzky has always been a shade in the background of my personal musical exploration. His recordings are almost all in mono and I’ve never felt the urge to explore his oeuvre. But Felder’s depiction of Koussevitzky has me interested. In the show Koussevitzky says to Bernstein, “As a conductor you must be dedicated to the composer. You must be willing to die for the composer. You must be dedicated to every single note — willing to die for every single note.”
The show was predominantly about relationships. Music formed the lens through which we viewed Bernstein’s complex personal interactions with his wife and with his father, mentors, and lovers.
Felder used Wagner’s Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde as the climactic moment of relationship, love, artistry, and politics. Bernstein is not known as one of the great Wagner conductors. In fact, he is not known for his conducting of opera much at all. However, Bernstein’s recording of Tristan on Philips is considered one of the finest of all time. The conflicts of forbidden love and the betrayal of trust that permeate Tristan also wove their ways through Bernstein’s life as a gay man with a wife and children.
The themes in Tristan align well with Bernstein’s biography, yet Wagner was a rabid antisemite. The combination of all these themes in the presentation of the Liebestod was masterful.