Pianist/composer Hershey Felder: An American story reborn locally


By Julie Sarno

Pianist/composer Hershey Felder has brought the magic of composers George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Ludwig von Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein to the stage at the Old Globe and theatres throughout the world. His most recent production, “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra,” has roots in La Jolla. Felder has a home in La Jolla which he refers to as “his composing house.” It is here that he spent October, November and December retooling “An American Story,” a production which he first took to the stage in Los Angeles.

Through story telling and acting, Felder brings to life a composer or historical person. Audience members enjoy the sounds and the sights of the show while learning more about music and musical history.

An American Story is told through he eyes of Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, a 23-year-old Union Army medic who first treated Lincoln following the shooting at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. While in La Jolla, Felder worked on the orchestration and “the finessing of this piece,” taking An American Story from being a large orchestral piece to a more intimate production in which he plays the central character accompanied by about 10 musicians.

“It is a matter of story telling,” said Felder, who has a second home in Point Loma which he has rented on a long-term basis to use for business meetings. One of his professional staff lives there. “Story telling is so important. It gives a context to the music that not everyone knows.”

Instead of the piano being a central character as it was in the Composer Series, Felder features a small orchestra and sings solos from Stephen Foster songs and other 19th century American music. An American Story in its current iteration debuted at the Birch North Park Theatre in January and ran through Feb. 3. It opens in Chicago at the Royal George Theatre on March 7. The show features a book and score by Felder.

Felder chose to open the show in San Diego as all the technical artists he selected to work with him are based here. They include Erik Carstensen, his co-producer and sound designer; Trevor Hay, director; Chris Rynne, Lighting Designer; Don Adams, stage manager; Abby Caywood, costume designer and Cynthia Caywood, dramaturg. Some had previously worked for the Old Globe, but all work for Felder now, and travel as needed to open An American Story in other cities.

How did such a talented and creative artist evolve? Felder was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1968. His mother, Eva, was born in Budapest, Hungary. His father, Jacob, was born in Poland.

“My parents were very supportive of my interest in music,” said Felder. “They were not musically oriented and wanted me to learn. They did not think it would be a career at first.

“By the time I was 11, I knew music was a serious interest. I drove my family crazy practicing in the basement for six or seven hours a day,” smiled Felder at the memory. He acknowledged that practicing was not much fun until he had mastered the basics and could play more challenging music.

Felder first recalls performing in public as about the age of 10 or 11 in Montreal. “I remember a hall with a lot of people. I played something simple, by Chopin – a mazurka.”

As a young artist, he had a very long list of people who he admired as pianists and conductors. Famed pianists Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninov, Clara Haskill and Moriz Rosenthal were very special. Felder particularly admired people from the Liszt school of playing and Rosenthal had studied with Liszt.

At age 13, Felder’s life changed when his mother passed away. His father was left to raise Hershey and his younger sister, Tammy, by himself. Felder devoted his youth to school and piano studies. He began studying at McGill University in Montreal in 1981 with Dorothy Morton and Eugene Plawutsky, also learning opera, conducting, composition and accompanying. He also studied in New York with Jerome Lowenthal.

In 1996, Felder was asked to perform at the Canadian Consular Residence in Los Angeles and present a concert in honor of Kim Campbell, a former Prime Minister of Canada. She had been the first female Prime Minister of Canada as well as the first from British Columbia. She was Prime Minister in 1993, then in her mid- 40s.

“We became very good friends,” recounted Felder, who acknowledged they proceeded slowly in their relationship because of their 20-year age difference. “Our values — our moral values — were the same. After eight months it became clear we wanted to be more than friends. After a year we registered as a couple. We’ve been married for 16 years. For us, the age difference does not matter.”

Felder said Kim spent several weeks in La Jolla during the holidays before her obligations took her to distant places. “She consults in different countries in regard to democracy and women’s issues. She has spent her whole life with these issues, not just being but really studying. She has experience on a serious world scale. It’s fun to watch some of the things she has been a part of.

“We travel, we cook, we laugh, we make music together,” said Felder, who noted the couple’s primary residence is in Paris, where they have a black standard poodle named Leo. “Kim plays piano, cello and she sings. She is quite knowledgeable about music.”

Felder has a Yamaha in his “composing house” in La Jolla but a Steinway D Concert Grand Piano follows him around the country when he tours. Felder’s earlier touring productions were George Gershwin Alone; Monsieur Chopin; Beethoven as I Knew Him; Maestro: Leonard Bernstein and the Great American Songbook Sing-A-Long. The next shows he plans to work on are additions to his Composer Series, Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.

Felder spends time composing when he is not touring. His compositions include an opera titled Noah’s Ark, his Aliyah Concerto on Israeli Themes and Études Thematique and more. Felder is president of his production company, Eighty-Eight Entertainment, which issues his music, not yet available on iTunes. What advice would Felder offer to aspiring, young musicians? “Study, work learn and pay attention to those who want to teach you. Use your ears first, then your head and heart.”