Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Joel Zwick
Featuring: Hershey Felder
When: Previews June 7-9; opens June 10, closes July 9, 2017
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $45-$105 (savings available for educators, seniors, and patrons 35 and under); subject to change; visit theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
brought to life by Felder
audience at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
It just seems like magic, what Hershey Felder does to bring great composers to life on stage.
Instead — or in addition to the magic — it is excellent musicianship, fine acting, powerful script writing and evocative stage design. And Felder does all of that himself.
Well, true, he has help — director Joel Zwick, and a full crew from Hershey Felder Presents and from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, where he opened "Hershey Felder, Beethoven," on Saturday night.
But Felder is the brains and the beating heart of creativity in his shows. His writing, his performances, as actor and musician, are excellent. An hour and a half with Felder makes for a very moving, touching experience.
Felder doesn't just play some music and recite details of the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. He plays from a very wide selection of Beethoven's music, from the first, brilliant variations he wrote when he was 11 to "Für Elise," which was found and published decades after the composer's death.
And each bit of music is explained in such a way that helps us to understand Beethoven's thinking and emotions and the influence of his family, friends and nature on his music.
The tale is partially told through the memories of Gerhard von Breuning, who as a young teen, spent a lot of time with Beethoven, who'd been his father Stephan's best friend. Von Breuning grew up to be a doctor, and in 1874 published his memoirs of spending time with Beethoven, in "Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus."
The "Schwarzspanierhaus" (black Spaniard's house) was the last place Beethoven lived.
And it was a complete mess, as Felder tells it — quite amusingly — through von Breuning's memories. It became a habit that Beethoven would offer to cook dinner for van Breuning, at which time the boy would quickly invite the maestro to dine with van Breuning's family.
Van Breuning tells the story of being out for a walk with his father when they come across what he takes to be a vagrant. Who turns out to be Beethoven, shouting and talking to himself. Felder's transition from the elegant van Breuning to a seemingly rotund and sloppy Beethoven is hilarious.
Felder at the grand piano, set mid stage, in front of huge headstones and a monument that says "Beethoven," is hypnotic.
He talks about C minor, playing that chord. "It's so dark," he says. Then he shows how Beethoven went from the dark to the light, with a change from C minor to C major, playing those variations he composed as a child. Beautiful. And, a little hint about the composer who changed music, transitioning from the classical to the romantic eras.
Beethoven "is at the top of the pantheon of composers," Felder told me in an interview a few weeks ago. "He changed music in many ways. What came out of him was a whole different approach to music — an expression of what is emotional rather than just descriptive."
Felder, as van Breuning, tells the story of when Beethoven met a composer he revered: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and it is hilarious and also very telling.
When Beethoven gets the news of Mozart's death, he plays a passage from Mozart's own Requiem, the Lacrimosa dies Illa (mournful that day). Very touching.
Felder brings to life the great irony of Beethoven's life, that for many of his adult years, he was deaf. His hearing started to get bad in his late 20s, and he lived to the age of 57, which means that for most of his life he as least had severe tinnitus, and eventual deafness. Many of his greatest works were written when he could not hear them himself.
We learn all sorts of history about the magnificent composer, including the shouted tales of family troubles, which were plenty, and bits about the great man's money troubles.
But the real treat of the show is the music. Felder is a master of the piano, and I was especially impressed by his control of the dynamics — of how loudly or softly each note would be played. Felder caresses and then pounds the music out of the big grand piano, and it is magnificent.
Several times I felt like interrupting the performance with applause, but kept quiet out of respect for Felder's performance and so as to not disrupt the audience, which for most of the show was breathlessly quiet, raptly absorbing the music.
Finally, after a passage from the Fifth Symphony, the audience did burst into applause. There are two key stories that tell of the famous four-note opening of the fifth — the dot-dot-dot-dah — and Felder tells what is probably the correct one; that Beethoven got the idea for that riff when he heard a yellow-hammer bird knocking on a tree in Vienna's Prater Park.
(The other story, that Beethoven called those notes "Thus Fate knocks at the door!" from his secretary, Anton Schindler, has largely been discounted by historians.)
It is a gorgeous treat to hear Felder play a portion from the choral fourth movement of the ninth, and many of us wanted to sing along: "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" — All men shall become brothers — but instead, we left it to Felder to bring the magic, and he did.
For someone who loves the music of Beethover, as I do, this show is a glorious treat.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org