Hershey Felder Claude Debussy

Wednesday night, March 4, the staff of San Diego Magazine sent our April issue to press. Earlier that day, California’s governor had declared a state of emergency, and while reviewing page proofs I was texting my mother to make sure she had enough groceries for a two-week quarantine.

Planning for the next issue, I leapt at the chance to interview Hershey Felder, who would be at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in May. Every day, more staff members started working from home. My last day in the office was March 17, and early the next morning I called Mr. Felder in Paris from my kitchen table, where—I remembered too late—I’m lucky to get a single reception bar. Our connection was so bad he could barely hear me, and I had to restart my first question three times before dragging my chair, phone, and computer out into the rain.

Outside, a second bar meant he could now hear my questions, but in the rain and wind neither I, nor my voice memo app, could pick up more than an occasional suggestion of his answers. Later, transcribing our conversation felt like searching for alien signals in a sea of cosmic white noise.

Anyway, it all became moot one week later, when our May issue was canceled.

 

Hershey Felder is inexhaustible, his memory a seemingly infinite library. While most concert pianists are content to simply play the masterworks of classical music for you (the lazy slobs!), Felder creates one-man biographical stage plays where he captures each composer’s life story, setting their music in the context of its time and creation.

A Paris Love Story, about Claude Debussy, is his eighth such work, and he’s been performing all of them, in rotation, thousands of times, 10 months a year, for decades. He’s already finished his ninth, about Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Rep’s production was postponed till November, and as of press time, my guess is that it will most likely be streamed live from the City of Lights. Because of course Felder didn’t take the summer off just because every theater on earth was closed—instead he created his own arts broadcasting company, Live from Florence, and streamed three of his other plays: on Irving Berlin in May, on Beethoven in July, and on Gershwin in September. A portion of the proceeds from each went to support the Rep and a dozen other theaters where he frequently performs.

The streaming format suits him just fine; his welcoming manner is more suited to the intimate theater than the concert hall, anyway: Eager to tell the story behind the music, he draws you in, as if sharing a secret, and teases out expressions you’ve never heard before in even the most popular tunes.

At the end of his live broadcast of George Gershwin Alone, once he’d finished “Rhapsody in Blue” and you were positive you couldn’t be any more impressed, he took viewer questions by email. When one surprisingly entitled fan complained that their favorite Gershwin concerto wasn’t part of the program, Felder asked the stage manager for his iPad, downloaded the sheet music, and sight-read it on the spot.

 

My 2019 New Year’s resolution was to secretly begin practicing piano for the first time since childhood. My plan was to surprise my dad by playing his favorite song, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” for him on his birthday. On the page, some sections looked impossible. But I learned that if I just practiced one measure at a time—even just a couple notes at a time—eventually it would click. Suddenly I’d feel the pattern, and I smiled to myself, because it felt like Debussy had reached through time to let me in on his secret.

Then on the morning of my dad’s birthday, he died.

So it goes. Debussy himself died at age 55, while the First World War raged around him. Gershwin died at 38, in the depths of the Great Depression.

Don’t withhold your gifts. Give them freely as soon as you can. Be they material, a talent, or simply a kind word. If there’s anything you’ve been meaning to do, know there will never be a perfect time, and that everything can change in a day. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike. Just get up and start doing the work.

 


Hershey Felder’s A Paris Love Story is scheduled to play in November streamed live from Florence. Check sdrep.org and hersheyfelder.net for the most up-to-date info on how to see it.

Dan Letchworth is the copy chief of San Diego Magazine. His print column Dansplaining explores San Diego trivia, and his theater review blog Everyone’s a Critic was a finalist for best online column in the 2019 National City & Regional Magazine Awards.

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