It all began when I was a very little boy, so I am told.
I was born in Montreal, one of North America’s oldest cities that held on fast to its European origins while creating its own cosmopolitan way of being. Immigrants, whether Greek, Asian, Eastern European, Italian or whomever, chose not to melt into a one big pot, but to recreate “home” wherever that may have been, in all its glory. Should “home” have been Italy, it was never more than a quick car-ride away where, after a long day and evening of musical rehearsal, a group of us would head over to our dear friend Gianna’s Mamma, who despite having been in Montreal for years spoke no English and no French, only beautiful Neapolitan. Mamma would welcome us “home” well past midnight, with fresh homemade lasagna and gnocchi, cooking and feeding us fledgling musicians until sunrise. It was warm. It was plentiful and beautiful. It was “home”.
It is that kind of European color that I entered when I was two weeks old and my father would take me every Sunday to visit my Eastern European Grandma, where homemade Polish “pasta”—pierogi and sour cream—were on the menu without fail. And when I was three years old and my Grandma was moved into elder care, every Sunday we would make a trip there too. My first specific memory of those weekly visits is when I was three. There was an upright “Magic Box” in the solarium, where the elderly were gathered, while one of the residents would push the black and white buttons on what was called a keyboard, after which sounds would emerge from the box that sent me dreaming. One Sunday, after the lady who was playing left, I ambled up to the white and black buttons to make a little “magic” of my own. I began pounding away with all the strength I could muster. Within minutes the lady from the gift shop in the room next door, ran into the solarium…
“Someone either give that kid piano lessons, or KILL HIM! But one or the other!”
Shortly thereafter the piano lessons began, and within a very short while I devoured everything I could about the “Magic Box” including where it came from. I discovered that the magic box had a real name—“Pianoforte,” “Soft-loud”—and that it was the first keyboard able to do so, with its internal mechanism having been invented by a man named Bartolomeo Cristofori at “offices” in Florence, Italy: the Uffizi. From that moment on, I dreamt of seeing the place where my “Magic Box” had been invented.
As a young musician, I was finally able to travel on my own, and made my way to Florence, the most beautiful, gentle, soft, but grand and soulful city in the world. There is not one centimeter of the city that doesn’t feel as if it were crafted by hand, where even the shape of a building stone or a brick seems to have been caressed into being by the loving hands of an artist, proud of his beloved city, and even prouder to contribute to the humanity of its existence. My heart beating like mad, I made my way up to the piazzale Michelangelo, where a 19th-century bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David stands guard over the mystical Florence he loves. I made my way to the left side of the scenic piazzale, and it was there on the lower left that I had my first view of the Uffizi, where Bartolomeo came up with the idea that a keyboard might be able to play “Piano e Forte” (soft and loud), a keyboard that ever since that day at my Grandma’s elder care, I poured my innermost feelings and thoughts into, making it a link to my soul. I burst into tears. The tears ran freely, and maybe there was a bit of heaving, or there must have been because a lovely Fiorentina of a certain age, beautifully dressed with an elegant silk scarf around her neck gently billowing in the wind, approached me and lightly touched my shoulder…
“Giovane uomo, stai bene?” “Young man, are you alright?”
“Yes. Yes, I am. Thank you for asking. It is my first time here in your beautiful city, and my heart is exploding with happiness and tears! My dream is now to die in Florence!”
The beautiful lady looked at me with her soft brown eyes and wistfully smiled.
“I see,” she said. “But perhaps, before you die, you might try living here first.”
She nodded and walked away.
Years later, I write to you from that beautiful magical city, from my home on a hill overlooking the Duomo, in a piece of the world, where magic of all types happens every single day, magic that I hope to share with you again and again.
HERSHEY FELDER: GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE
will be streamed live from Florence, Italy on Sunday, September 13, benefitting Teatro della Pergola, theatres in the US, and The Florentine.
Tickets ($55 per household) are available for purchase here. Includes viewing access to the live stream and additional one-week access to the recording: