By Jean Lowerison
Raconteur, music historian and first-class pianist Hershey Felder has carved a career out of writing and performing dramatic musical chats about the great composers, including Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Gershwin.
Now he’s back at San Diego Repertory Theatre through March 24, where Joel Zwick directs “Hershey Felder, Beethoven,” a delightful, reworked Beethoven show.
In most of his shows, Felder “plays” the musician. Not so here; instead, the influential man is seen through the eyes of a budding young musician in Vienna named Gerhard von Breuning, whose father Stephan was Beethoven’s close friend.
We meet the adult Breuning at the top of the show. He is at Beethoven’s grave, where “the powers that be” have decreed that Beethoven’s bones be disinterred and buried again in a box that will prevent further decay. Breuning is incensed, insisting that is not what Beethoven wanted.
He then launches into a thoroughly engaging 90-minute story with music about his relationship with the composer. The adult Breuning wrote the 1870 memoir on which Felder’s script is based.
Beethoven’s story is a brilliant but sad one, beginning long before his famous deafness. His father was a mean drunk and a “not very good choral conductor and organist” who would lock his son in the basement when he didn’t play something right.
But the boy was an obvious talent (“genius” is probably a better word) with a penchant for minor keys, most especially C minor. He had an assortment of music teachers.
When he was 16, Beethoven went to meet Mozart, who asked him to play “something fun,” and was greatly disappointed when he played something in C minor. Ever inventive, Ludwig did an improvisation in a major key.
Felder is more than an excellent storyteller. He’s also a fine concert pianist. It seems evident in this show that Beethoven holds a special place in his heart, because his interpretations of the music are masterful and seem played from the heart. From snippets of the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, the “Moonlight Sonata” and the “Emperor Concerto” to every piano student’s introduction to Beethoven, “Für Elise,” Felder plays with commitment, tenderness, and even occasional ferocity, as required.
The set (designed by Felder) is simple and dominated, as always, by a grand piano. Since this show starts in a cemetery, Beethoven’s imaginary grave is center stage at the footlights. The dominant color of the show is black.
Christopher Ash is the mind behind the lighting and projection design, and Eric Carstensen responsible for the sound design.
Felder is an enchanting storyteller, whether explaining the heartache of Beethoven’s oncoming deafness or elucidating Beethoven’s snarky opinion of Haydn. Felder is always worth watching, but never more than in this wonderful interpretation of the towering genius of Beethoven.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.