What happens when a mere mortal (Hershey Felder) attempts to embody a god of classical music (Beethoven)?
Ludwig Van Beethoven, the deaf composer — best known for such concertos as the “Moonlight Sonata,” “Für Elise” and his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor — is not the sort of subject matter one would normally associate with being enchanting, but that is precisely the spell that Hershey Felder casts during his one-man (playing through August 19th at the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts).
Being more familiar with Beethoven as a motion picture about a loveable St. Bernard, I came to this theatrical experience as a veritable blank slate. These days, immersive is the buzzword commonly associated with virtual reality, but Felder’s one-man show is immersive in the old-school vernacular — so involving that it renders this 500-seat theater pin-drop quiet. In the space of an hour and a half, Felder melds storytelling with music to draw us in to another world and paint a vivid portrait of a musical genius whose humanity is often eclipsed by his ubiquitous compositions.
Felder takes the stage on a simple yet evocative set. A Steinway piano occupies center stage, against the backdrop of a cemetery. It’s here the story begins, decades after Beethoven’s death amid some controversy over what would become of his remains. Felder takes us back in time to the summer of 1825 where a boy named Gerhard von Breuning is out for a stroll with his father Stephan when they encounter a short, fat, filthy vagrant on the street. Much to the boy’s surprise, this is no ordinary vagrant but the famed composer Ludwig von Beethoven. Gerhard’s father later explains to his son how he came to be close friends with the famous composer and the rift that drove them apart for ten years. As Felder employs various personas and accents, we learn that Ludwig was already quite famous by the age of 11. But his gift was clouded by a turbulent home life, dominated by an abusive, alcoholic father. Felder suggests that Beethoven’s life was likely saved by the fact that he was hired to tutor Stephan von Bruening which offered a respite from his chaotic home.
Felder, who is an accomplished pianist, intersperses this tale with Beethoven’s music throughout the 90-minute production. This proves indispensable since it’s quite impossible to separate the man (Beethoven) from his music. A seminal development in Beethoven’s life was the fact that he began to lose his hearing around the age of 26. By 31, he was completely deaf, though this was, the period during which his most famous works were composed. Felder also drives home the point that Beethoven was, at heart, an iconoclast who broke all the rules and therefore changed the entire world of music.
Beethoven’s life doesn’t seem to posess the inherent drama (or comedy) that made Mozart’s life so ready for stage and screen (notable in the classic Amadeus). But Felder manages to recreate a thoroughly researched and compelling narrative from what we know (and don’t know) about Beethoven. It’s a journey with numerous offshoots and tributaries which are anything but linear, but nonetheless have their own kind of coherence. It’s what Felder describes as a “theatrical impression” – coming together to evoke idea of what Beethoven may have been like. Felder has created and performed similar explorations/excavations with the likes of other musical geniuses: George Gershwin, Chopin, Franz Liszt, Irving Berlin — including queer artists such as Leonard Bernstein and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Felder closes out the show with what he describes as an “audience encore” – an impromptu Q&A session, during which he (no longer in character) fields questions from the audience about Beethoven’s life and legacy. It’s also a chance to see Hershey Felder, the man behind the mask, free-styling. A few brave audience members step forward to present random questions, and Felder takes them on, demonstrating his complete mastery of the subject — including what remains a mystery. Felder ends the evening with a provocative preview of what will be the subject of his next one-man show, a composer who, as Felder claims, paints pictures with music – Claude Debussy. With Felder at the helm, it promises to be equally enthralling.
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Also check out: Why I Chose to Make a Feature Documentary on the Life and Times of Gay Composer Gerald Busby
Last modified: August 13, 2018