It’s easy to hear Negro spirituals in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” or European classicism in his Concerto in F.
But concert pianist Hershey Felder hears all that and more in Gershwin’s music, including the chanted melodies of the Haftorah in “Ain’t Necessarily So” and the lilt of a cantor in “Swanee.”
Few musicians have listened more closely to the music of George Gershwin than Felder. For 14 years he’s portrayed the master composer in his one-man show “George Gershwin Alone.” He took the musical to Broadway, London and elsewhere around the world, and has logged to date 3,000 performances.
“George Gershwin Alone” makes its Bay Area debut June 8 with a 15-day run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Felder says audiences shouldn’t expect a comprehensive biography of the composer, who died of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38. Instead, the show is more like a 90-minute hangout with Gershwin, the man and his music.
“It’s a very simple story,” Felder says, “a love letter to his audience. In the early days [of the show] some critics asked me why was there no dirt on Gershwin. It’s because there was none. This was a guy who spent his whole life trying to be a great composer.”
With concert works such as “Rhapsody in Blue,” Broadway musicals like “Strike Up the Band” and “Of Thee I Sing,” and classic songs such as “Embraceable You,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Our Love is Here to Stay,” history rendered its verdict: Gershwin was arguably the greatest American composer.
Felder, 44, performs those classics in his show, all the while talking to the audience in the character of Gershwin. Having to act, play and sing at the same time is akin to piloting several helicopters at once, but Felder has mastered the art of theatrical multitasking.
“I pride myself on working hard,” he says, adding that doing the show “is a feat of crazy.”
Surprisingly, the idea for “George Gershwin Alone” came to him not while walking down Broadway but while walking the grassy paths of Auschwitz. The Canadian-born Paris-based musician visited the former death camp in 1995 as part of a trip with the Shoah Foundation.
In nearby Krakow he met a Holocaust survivor who told him he detected in the score of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” the sound of trains, similar to the cattle cars that had once transported him to Auschwitz.
Felder found out later Gershwin had remarked that he’d composed the piece on a train, embedding into it the “rattley bang, whistle and click, click of the tracks.”
This confluence of Jewish and musical ideas came together over time as a one-man show. Felder researched carefully, reading every Gershwin biography and studying the original manuscripts of his compositions.
Felder says Gershwin incorporated into his music his Jewish cultural roots.
“At an early preview of the show,” he recalls, “a composer who knew Gershwin came backstage and said to me ‘You’re the first person to acknowledge and not disregard the Jewishness that was part of Gershwin.’ This runs as a theme in the play.”
Felder didn’t stop his musical impersonations with Gershwin. He went on to develop similar one-man shows based on Beethoven and Chopin, both of which were successful around the world. He is now working on a new one about Franz Liszt.
Part of the enduring allure of Gershwin is wondering what might have been had he not died so young. Felder says at the time of his death the composer was sketching another opera, this one based on the old Jewish story “The Dybbuk.” He was even planning to visit Eastern Europe to absorb Jewish melodies. That trip was to have taken place in 1939 or 1940.
Which almost brings the story full circle back to Felder’s 1995 encounter near Auschwitz. His admiration for Gershwin has only grown over the years.
“He created a musical language for America that existed in blues form, but had not been developed,” Felder says. “He took European tradition and American ingenuity and pieced them together.”
“George Gershwin Alone” plays June 8-23 at Berkeley Rep, Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. $29-$77. www.berkeleyrep.org.