Hershey Felder has forged a career rooted in storytelling. A modern-day Renaissance man, Felder has written, directed, composed, conducted, produced and starred in an array of one-man stage productions that center on famous composers from throughout history. Felder usually delivers these solo performances to packed theaters; as stay-at-home orders remain intact, however, Felder has adapted his shows to the livestream format, creating a season of broadcast performances called “Live from Florence.” In his newest work, Felder aspires to transport audiences to the City of Light as he revives the visionary impressionist composer Claude Debussy in the production “A Paris Love Story.”
“I was both an actor and a pianist, and I was always fascinated with how artists create and the context in which they create,” Felder recounted in an interview with The Daily Californian. Over the phone, the drawl of a busy day stretched his kind, thoughtful voice. Felder resides in Florence, Italy, where the clock had struck just after 10 p.m.
Despite the unprecedented tolls of the pandemic, he remains busier than ever. “It’s completely insane! I can’t take a break from anything,” he joked.
A sensitive speaker, Felder then paused. In a softer voice, he added, “How can I not say how lucky I am when so many artists are suffering and trying to figure out how to work?”
The heavy weight of reality seemed to kindle a moment of introspection for the pianist. “Thank God there’s a demand for the work that I’m doing. I call it a small miracle,” he said. “If there’s any way I can be helpful to the theaters and other artists … that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
The chameleonic performer often lingers in this level of inspection. By blending the composer’s personal life with their professional legacy, his shows reckon with what it means to be an artist. “Is it something that exists on some kind of esoteric level,” he mused, “or are these just human beings that created this art?”
From Beethoven to Bernstein, each of Felder’s plays centers on a titan in music history. And yet, cloaked in the long shadow cast by these composers’ legacies, there is undeniable humanity. “They weren’t always icons,” Felder said. “They were just people.”
Felder roots his starring performances in this personal quality, and it anchors his portrayals of each iconic composer. Legendary composers became legends because their musical achievements were drenched in humanity; they could elicit a profoundly human sense of connection that endures beyond their epoch. “They’re so human that we relate on a very visceral level,” Felder said.
“A Paris Love Story” aspires to relay this sense of honest emotional expression, as the story intertwines Felder’s personal relationship with his ailing mother with his broader narrative about Debussy. In crafting the production, Felder sensitively stitches together Debussy’s innovative works to elicit honest emotions. “A Paris Love Story” harbors languid, lush performances of “The Sea” and “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” but Felder unveils the show’s crown jewel in a graceful, tender performance of Debussy’s immortal masterpiece, “Clair de Lune.”
Felder takes great care to form a relationship with his audience, a passion that has not eroded in a virtual landscape. His shows orbit around classical music — a historically exclusive, erudite sphere. In “A Paris Love Story,” Felder demonstrates Debussy’s innovative use of whole-tone scales, and he explains the difference between the intervals of a perfect fourth and an augmented fourth. At the same time, the nuanced topics explored in this show are crafted to captivate and never to condescend.
“One of the things I’ve decided long ago was never to treat an audience like they’re stupid,” Felder said bluntly.
He understands that regardless of one’s knowledge of classical music, everyone wants to be treated as an intelligent, capable and thoughtful person.
“Some (audience members) will get everything. Some of them might not get everything, but they’ll still understand,” Felder insisted. “And some of them will be more curious to go to the next level … and to find a place where they can learn even more.”
The virtuoso pianist affirmed that his goal is to educate and inspire interest and excitement in the audiences through his performances. “Nobody is born (with an) innate ability and understanding of everything,” Felder said. “Some people learn fast … but nobody knows it from nothing. You have to somehow learn.”
“A Paris Love Story” streamed live Sunday, Nov. 22. Ticket holders can access a recording of the production from Nov. 23-29.