May 112012

Hershey Felder’s performance as Leonard Bernstein not only reconnects us with one of America’s great musical geniuses: it is also a reminder that boundaries sometimes stifle our conception of just how much artists can accomplish.

Hershey Felder in Maestro: Leonard Bernstein (A Play With Music). Presented by Arts Emerson at the Paramount Center Main Stage, Boston, MA through May 20.

By Anthony J. Palmer

A Musical or an Opera? Who Cares?

This is not so much a review of Hershey Felder in Maestro as it is a commentary; there are sufficient reviews worth reading (including Helen Epstein’s Arts Fuse review). I want to talk about how we draw boundaries around our deepest beliefs and then seldom challenge their validity. And how Maestro suggests that these limits damage the imaginative health of our culture.

One high-walled boundary is how we have cordoned off our values in music. For example, there are enclosures for pop, rap, serious (or classical), top 40, folk, country western, Broadway musical comedy, opera, etc., etc. While those boundaries seal off specific musical genres to ease our thinking about where something fits (or should I say non-thinking), they also raise perplexing questions. What might we be missing when structured borders prohibit engagement with the “other”? And where do we place Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, Kurt Weill’s and Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera?

Minimalism was questioned when it came on the musical scene. Where should it be placed? Jazz has always had a special niche for the aficionado, but jazz fusions with rock and other styles remain suspect for many. Milhaud’s La Création du Monde, while borrowing from the jazz idiom, relies on formal means from the Western canon with which the composer was eminently familiar. Fusions have also occurred with music from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. How do we evaluate those combinations, given that judgments require a reference?

Initially, the Gershwin Rhapsody was considered ill-formed, jazz poured into an inappropriately classical mold, structurally suspect because many of its sections are thrown together, and not a good piece of music by any standards. The argument about The Most Happy Fella is whether it is an opera or a musical comedy, although the role of Tony calls for an accomplished baritone. Moreover, does it matter what its classification is? It’s a wonderful and enjoyable theater piece.

The Threepenny Opera, with its libretto by Bertolt Brecht, was criticized by hard-core Marxists for its inadequate portrait of the bourgeoisie in all its “greed, hypocrisy and amorality,” as theater critic Alison Croggon put it. She also points out that “artists — which is to say, artists who make any art worth the candle —- resist cultural pigeonholes with every fiber of their being.” Threepenny’s music transcended boundaries: its “Mack the Knife” was usurped by pop singers of the day, such as Bobby Darin. Did this muddy our boundaries?

We foolishly classify music on the basis of type rather than considering its quality. This has a great deal to do with the preconceptions of the audience. Suppose the Boston Symphony Orchestra were to play film music, which was composed by first-rate composers such as Leonard and Elmer Bernstein and Eric Wolfgang Korngold, instead of the Boston Pops? How would the audience respond? I believe the reader can easily imagine the uproar, with ticket sales plummeting. Is there also a snob appeal at play that forces us to keep quiet about our admiration for folk artists Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, ballads by Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, and even songs by Lady Gaga, because we might be embarrassed in front of “highbrows” who only attend art music concerts?

With that risk in mind, let’s cut across some boundaries: Maestro: Leonard Bernstein, A Play With Music features the multiple talents of Hershey Felder portraying Leonard Bernstein, who, to my mind, may be the greatest musician that America has produced. Bernstein was also multi-talented, and Felder does an excellent job of dramatizing his subject’s many-sided genius: Bernstein as composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, musicologist, writer, and all-around thinker about music. Felder has a modest voice, but uses it effectively to sing phrases from various Bernstein songs that are now part of the American musical fabric, such as “Maria” from West Side Story.

As an actor, he is most effective at making us believe that Bernstein himself inhabits the stage. His imitations of Leonard and his father in conversation, conductors Artur Rodzinski, Aaron Copland, and others, are remarkable. His outstanding talent, however, is as a pianist, and he uses that ability to emphasize the compositional aspect of the Bernstein persona superbly. By presenting us with Bernstein the abundantly talented musician, he highlights the theme of this commentary: why do we judge on the basis of genre rather than on quality? The truth is the latter rewards us with a much broader view of music.

Hershey Felder -- As an actor, he is most effective at making us believe that Bernstein himself inhabits the stage.

As Felder tells us in his monologue, Bernstein himself was disappointed that he was better known for his Broadway work than for his symphonic output. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony Number 1, Jeremiah. His other two works, Symphony Number 2, The Age of Anxiety, and Symphony Number 3, “Kaddish,” were very well received but are not often performed. Is this lack of interest generated by the construction of boundaries drawn to protect us from the unruliness of the imagination because limits help us to avoid cognitive dissonance? I suspect the answer is a resounding yes! How could one person master so many different genres: symphony, theater, dance, and film, in addition to his fame as a conductor, teacher, writer, lecturer, and all-around raconteur? Where do I place Leonard Bernstein? Is he a composer for the theater? Or do I can keep Bernstein in mind as a composer of symphonies? Or is he a conductor of genius, performing Beethoven and Mahler?

Dividing our enthusiasms into musical categories often reflects how we regulate other parts of our lives. When someone attempts to excel in several different fields, we think “What chutzpah” and dismiss some or all of an individual’s accomplishments. I see this same attitude in academe. If you are a musicologist, how can you also be a composer? If you are graduating fabulous and successful music teachers, why are you traveling around the country performing? In applications for university positions, a candidate has to tailor his or her curriculum vitae to the specific contours of the position and leave out interests that would enhance the primary field. It’s as though success in a variety of fields threatens others who concentrate on one narrow aspect of music study. Are we skeptical of those who profess a variety of interests and qualifications?

Thus Hershey Felder’s performance as Leonard Bernstein not only reconnects us with one of America’s great musical geniuses: it is also a reminder that boundaries sometimes stifle our conception of just how much artists can accomplish. Thank you, Mr. Felder.


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