Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Trevor Hay
Featuring: Harvey Felder
When: January 10 through February 11, 2018
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $45-$105; visit https://theatreworks.org/201718-season/201718-season/our-great-tchaikovsky/ or call 650-463-1960
in 'Our Great Tchaikovsky'
this time with a portrait of the brilliant Russian composer
Hershey Felder used to talk about how the audiences at his great composers shows — Beethoven, Gershwin, Berlin — didn't know how his real voice sounded, because he did the shows in character.
Felder gave us the voice of Irving Berlin, talking about coming to America as a child immigrant. He gave us the voice of a young German who was a friend to Beethoven.
But with "Our Great Tchaikovsky," about the magnificent Russian composer, he starts the show in his own voice, telling the audience about a letter he received asking him to do a show about Tchaikovsky in Russia.
The letter serves as a neat bookend to the show, which in addition to providing a beautiful, in-depth story of Tchaikovsky and his music, shows why Felder can probably never perform the show in Russia.
Tchaikovsky was gay, which in his day would have meant a five-year sentence in a Siberian prison, or worse. Being gay is still illegal in Russia, and Felder knows that if he were to present his show in Russia, he himself might be arrested and imprisoned.
Modern Russia doesn't want the world to know Tchaikovsky was gay, but still chooses his music for big state events. "Swan Lake," for instance, opened the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
That gives a lovely irony to the title of this play.
So, Felder has no plans to go to Russia with "Our Great Tchaikovsky," as he explains at the end of the show. And it is, indeed, is a great show.
Felder, once he switches to a rich Russian accent, starts with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky talking about his childhood. "The moment I knew what music was, I started to compose," he says.
He tells of a famous Polish pianist who came to visit, and how after listening to that person play, immediately began composing variations on what the pianist had performed "I was 6 years old!" he tells us.
Music was for ladies, not for men, his parents told him, in discouraging his devotion to playing piano. They only begrudgingly allowed him time at the keyboard.
And, he talks about how he loved his mother's hands, which were long and beautiful. And how much he missed his mother when he was sent to the School of Jurisprudence to prepare for a career in civil service — 300 miles away. "I was 10 years old!"
All that is told accompanied by beautiful music performed by Felder on the grand piano that dominates the set he designed. (At his "Great American Songbook Sing-Along" on Monday, he jokingly called it his grandmother's living room.)
At the school, where cruelty was the norm for punishments, he became a part of a society of boys who policed themselves, to avoid harsher treatment by their overseers. They offered care and protection.
When Tchaikovsky's mother died, other boys became his source of comfort, and his interest in teenage boys was to last all his life.
He was not a predator, Felder tells us, but his most intense romantic interests were boys.
The truth of all that is seen in the many letters Tchaikovsky wrote to friends and relatives, which have been available for viewing for 30 years. But, Felder said after the show, in an audience-talk-back session, the letters are gradually being redacted.
Throughout the show, Felder plays Tchaikovsky's music brilliantly, beautifully on the piano, all the while relating it to events in Tchaikovsky's life, and in the Russia of the time.
I particularly enjoyed the excerpts from the First Piano Concerto, for which he first plays the piano part alone, then sounds a rendition of the orchestral part at the same time, on the same piano. Gorgeous.
For a few pieces, Felder uses recordings of orchestra, such as for part of "Swan Lake" and for "1812 Overture."
The latter includes fireworks projections behind the set, and is quite loud. Felder makes it clear how much Tchaikovsky hated the "1812 Overture," which he wrote as a commission, to earn money.
Felder also uses the show to recount much of Tchaikovsky's financial life — there wasn't much money in composing music in those days. He had an odd, stand-off relationship with a woman who supported him from afar for a while, and at times taught, wrote criticism and performed quite a bit. He conducted the orchestra in 1891 for the opening night of Carnegie Hall in New York.
The show is filled with fabulous music and story telling. And a few very good laughs. We get a very human portrait of the brilliant Tchaikovsky and his life.
The show closes on Feb. 11. Good luck getting tickets! Felder's shows are the most popular in TheatreWorks history, and most of the seats get sold.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org