Hershey Felder, like the legendary virtuosos that he has portrayed, is the ultimate storyteller who not only entertains audiences, but embraces the responsibility of accurate portrayal, taking as long as two years to properly inform himself. He transports himself back in time, wearing the clothes of the composers whose histories he retells, and does so dignifiedly, replete with accounts that honor and those that reveal extraordinary imperfections. His performances are never impersonations, either, but function as a lens through which we, the audience, can try to understand who these musical geniuses were.
Nevertheless, the likes of George Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin, Ludvig van Beethoven, Gerhard von Breuning, Franz Liszt, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, and now Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky have lived again through the eyes, words, and fingers of fellow pianist and composer, Felder. Equipped with an uncanny musicianship, Canadian-born Felder also carries out his one-man mode of expression with a wide range of gifts as the sole playwright and actor.
His ongoing re-creation of Tchaikovsky, which can be seen in the Trevor Hay-directed production of Our Great Tchaikovsky at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, CA, extended through August 13th, is done with an impressive conscientiousness and respect for the Russian hero and national treasure. So much so that the Kremlin sent Felder a letter to request a performance of the play on the Moscow stage, which he reads aloud out of character in the prelude to the show, prompting the audience with the question of whether he should accept the offer, which he answers at the very end. Certainly, an acceptance of such an honor would seem unquestionable, but the narrative of Tchaikovsky’s life reveals why one would be hesitant.
Suddenly, as the lights dim, and the classical black piano glimmers in the foreground, the stage is aglow with Felder clad in Tchaikovsky’s classy garb (much credit goes to costume designer Abigail Caywood) amid beautiful birch trees – reminiscent of the town, Klin, where Tchaikovsky lived in the last few years of his life. There is, additionally, a projection screen in the background and a framed portrait that reveals itself to be a digital one, as it subtly changes from his mother to his benefactor, and so on, throughout the 105-minute duration. Felder’s scenic design is understated, but intimate, as it invites the observer into Tchaikovsky’s world of introversion and idiosyncrasies.
This begins with a unique, and oftentimes distressing, childhood, with Tchaikovsky already improvising piano tunes at age six, and being sent to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg — an 800-mile trek via carriage from his hometown — to become a civil servant at ten. Felder’s screams of “mama” as he recollects Tchaikovsky’s unceremonious parting from his beloved mother, who died of cholera when the Russian prodigy was 14, is so full of urgency and dread that it immediately registers with our inner child and worst fears. The same can be said when Felder communicates Tchaikovsky’s childhood-through-adulthood guilt of having passed Scarlett Fever to another boy who succumbed to it; our hearts and sympathies go out to the long-gone Tchaikovsky due to the genuineness of Felder’s expressions.
Though he trained for a life in civics, Tchaikovsky promptly relinquishes his Ministry of Justice job, joining the Saint Petersburg Russian Conservatory, in spite of the humorous sentiment that “everyone in Russia thinks they’re a composer,” where he learns invaluable advice under the tutelage of Anton Rubinstein. In teaching Tchaikovsky that “conscience must never be compromised,” and why certain musical structures or harmonies/melodies work, and others don’t, and how to capture the stunning imperfections of nature via a sound that is meticulously ordered (music), Rubinstein inculcates in Tchaikovsky the due diligence required of well-researched composition. The thorough conveyance of such poetic and well-culled insight to attendees sparks a curiosity about music even when there might not be any — a testament to not only Felder, but Meghan Maiya’s dramaturgy and research.
The outcome of such assiduous preparation is that Tchaikovsky is breathtakingly actualized by Felder, who, as a master composer in his own right, is as prime a candidate as any to rediscover the emotions that channeled tempestuously through Tchaikovsky, like a zipping train through a tunnel. The Song of the Lark, Op. 39 — illustrative of nature’s slight discordance — is lovingly played by Felder, and accentuated by Christopher Ash’s projection design, which shows birds and deer appear out from the birch trees.
Furthermore, we understand Tchaikovsky’s nonconforming brilliance in spite of unconscionably negative feedback from the press and his peers, with his composition of Romeo and Juliet (which tonally elaborates on “the things we want, but can’t have”), and especially the genesis of Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23, which was pooh-poohed by his top-most contemporary at the time, Nikolai Rubinstein (brother of Anton). Felder’s re-interpretation of this, including singing the orchestral parts first, prior to putting it all together in a melodic frenzy of lightning strikes, is an aural wonder. It’s hard to believe the piece originally premiered in Boston, MA, where, in addition to christening Carnegie Hall in 1891 — Americans proved to be kinder, or just “prone to exaggeration” — a line that evokes a hearty laugh from the audience.
Felder’s astonishingly accurate and searing rendition of the 1812 Overture, his impassioned take on The Nutcracker, Op. 71 and, his endearing performance of Symphony No. 4, Op. 36 (dedicated by Tchaikovsky to his financial benefactor and 14-year pen pal, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, whom he only saw, but never spoke to, on two occasions), underscore the magnitude of his skill. But, it is Felder’s plaintive demonstration of Tchaikovsky’s last work before his enigmatic death – Symphony No. 6, Op. 74 (Pathétique) — when we witness why and how the private Tchaikovsky used his keyboard as the primary medium for expressing his inconsolable sadness.
The hardship of Tchaikovsky is that he hid in plain sight with a terrible fear that his homosexuality would be outed, leading to an insurmountable blow to his reputation, not to mention corporal punishment, and the loss of his life. Such an extremely unjust reprisal for being homosexual, as Felder explains while taking a brief, mid-show respite from the role, lamentably still occurs in certain regions of the world. Sadly, even Tchaikovsky’s attempt to veil himself from his sexuality – by entering into a sham marriage with Antonina Miliukova – becomes the bane of his existence, as he is repeatedly blackmailed by her. Tchaikovsky had very few true friends, one of whom he had never even uttered a word to, and it was a loneliness that crushed his spirit and his sense of well-being – which Felder emotes with a solemn helplessness.
The tragedy didn’t end there, as there were deep fissures in Tchaikovsky’s soul, perhaps born out of the childhood that was taken away from him. For instance, the composer unfortunately had a history of being attracted to adolescent males – for which he was culpably distraught about — including an irrational and deplorable infatuation with his own nephew, Vladimir Davydov, or “Bob,” for whom the Sixth Symphony was also written for. For those who aren’t that well-versed about Tchaikovsky’s personal life, it is a shocking reveal, and a madness that we can’t easily forgive, nor ever agree with. It is, however, one of the many truths during Tchaikovsky’s 53 years.
In Our Tchaikovsky, Felder compellingly brings all of these facts, no matter how honorable or harsh, to the forefront with his portrait of Tchaikovsky, a tortured man, who, despite being a victim due to his sexual predisposition, was also not, by any means, infallible. By wearing many faces throughout the production – as not only Tchaikovsky, but the narrator, an indefatigable maestro, and as his vulnerable self — Felder’s performance organically interacts with, and is refreshingly respectful to, his audience. In an era when attention spans are faltering, Felder accomplishes a miracle as the one and only man who demands full attention, and, in turn, delivers nary a dull moment.
For more information about Hershey Felder’s “Our Great Tchaikovsky” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, please visit thewallis.org/felder