Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review: The Exceptional Artistry of Hershey Felder's OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY

Photos courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this is the first
Hershey Felder performance I have attended, given the popularity of his productions and the number of original works he has produced in the last twenty years. Known for his impeccable theatrical portraits of famous composers, Felder uses his abilities as a concert pianist, composer, playwright, and actor to showcase both the artist and the man in a uniquely devised solo presentation.

The result is a hybrid genre all its own, and the consistently sold-out houses to which he plays proves that demand has only grown for his kind of theatre. George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Franz Liszt, and Leonard Bernstein have all been subjects of Felder’s exploration. Now Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) takes his turn in the spotlight as Felder presents what may be his most important and topical story to date.

Tchaikovsky was gay (though closeted), and that put him in a dangerous position living in 19th century Russia under a government regime that considered homosexual behavior to be deviant. It was a death sentence if you were found out. Many were banished to Siberia or outright killed. The sad fact is, while Tchaikovsky was a musical genius who would compose some of our greatest classical works, he lived in constant fear his entire life.

Russia’s complicated relationship with homosexuality continues, even today. Every other week another story emerges of the horrible treatment LGBT individuals are subjected to, and that is what makes Our Great Tchaikovsky such a thought-provoking piece at this time in history. As the world rises up in defense of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation, the responsibility to champion human dignity at its most basic level becomes paramount.

For Tchaikovsky, living in the shadows meant pouring all of his love, longing, and despair into his music. Essentially, he composed his emotions and gave us brilliant works like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Eugene Onegin, and Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique). Nine days after he premiered the Pathétique, he died. Cholera was the official report but rumors of a forced suicide arose and to this day the exact cause of death has never been confirmed.

Felder begins the piece by breaking the fourth wall and relating a true story about an invitation he received from Russian producers to bring his performance of their great composer to Russia. He reads from the letter and asks the audience whether or not he should go. It’s a simple question but the Russian government still considers the topic illegal (and is even going so far as to rewrite history by declaring Tchaikovsky wasn’t gay) which means Felder’s own life could be at risk for even performing it publicly.

With that thought lingering in the air, Felder morphs into the composer and begins to relate stories, tying them to his music and performing passages on a gorgeous Steinway grand piano that richly express Felder’s own sensitivity as an artist as well as Tchaikovsky’s.

One can see that his performance has been constructed with great respect for the Russian composer. An underlying elegance is woven into both the narrative structure and the visual storytelling that surrounds Felder throughout the piece.

Imagery of Tchaikovsky’s homeland softly comes into focus and then quietly transitions like virtual memories unspooling in the background. The face in a suspended picture frame also changes as the various significant figures in his life are discussed. These projections, and the lighting that so beautifully captures the depth of the composer’s emotions, is the work of Christopher Ash.

Felder has designed the scenery and, whether it was intentional or not, I couldn’t help but notice how the furnishings epitomized the weight of the era with their dark woods and heavy textures. In contrast, the piano center stage seemed to float between the two interiors with an entirely different and significantly lighter energy, functioning as a kind of respite from the reality of the world. It’s subtle stage magic and perhaps I’m reading too much into it but I was fascinated by the effect created by light, texture, and tone. Trevor Hay’s direction is seamless in its shifts from humor to beauty to pain.

Our Great Tchaikovsky’s run has already been extended a week longer than originally scheduled at The Wallis, due to high demand for tickets. I’m not surprised. The artistic consideration that has gone into the piece, together with Felder’s personal storytelling style, makes it an incredibly satisfying and tragically enlightening experience.

Those who go to the theatre looking for a great story will find one here. For the classically inclined, Felder’s mastery at the piano will remind you why you love the music. And if you’re in search of art with a message that matters, this is your ticket. There is a reason Hershey Felder’s name pops up repeatedly on theater marquees all over Los Angeles. He’s that good.

July 19 – August 13, 2017
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(located between Canon and Crescent)
Click Here for directions and parking.

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