The Many States of Hershey Felderby Pat Launer November 28, 2016
Fresh from his tour de force performance as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro,” which went straight to Broadway after its record-smashing performance in San Diego, Hershey Felder is at it again. He had sworn off the composers – with Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Frederick Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt firmly under his belt – but Tchaikovsky kept calling.
“I’m fascinated with his music,” Felder said from New York, where his “Maestro” show’s attendees included Stephen Sondheim, Helen Mirren, and the “Bernstein kids,” among others.
When “Maestro” made a stop in Chicago, the Chicago Sun Times called Felder a “quadruple-threat performer: actor, singer, pianist and writer – all of the first order.” But they left out a few other of his high-skill hyphenates: composer, producer, director.
As San Diegans well know, Felder has created his own unique theatrical genre, presenting biographical information about musical greats while inhabiting their characters, playing their most important music and offering large servings of humor and entertainment along the way. For his latest world premiere, “Our Great Tchaikovsky” (at the San Diego Rep Jan. 12-Feb. 12), Felder uses only those first four talents noted by the Sun Times, and relies on long-time collaborator Trevor Hay to direct.
“Tchaikovsky’s story really works theatrically,” Felder says. “It evokes Mother Russia and emotion in a fantastical kind of way. But the most important part of it is the music. This one is all about the music.”
This time-bending story of culture and politics “features something I have never done before for an audience: create the character before their eyes, and show them how I go about it.” Felder says. “Of course, there’s also anything and everything that is available in terms of Tchaikovsky’s biography, his sexuality and his music. The story involves current-day Russian politics as well as the politics of Tchaikovsky’s day in Czarist Russia.
“In Putin’s Russia,” Felder continues, “Tchaikovsky is a hero; in Czarist Russia, not so much.”
Tchaikovsky lived “a very complicated life in a world that didn’t accept gay men who liked young men. He clearly wasn’t a predator, and suffered because he knew he liked something off-limits.”
There’s another shadow on the life of Tchaikovsky; to this day, no one knows exactly how he died.
“There were all kinds of fishy circumstances. Conspiracy theories,” Felder says. “The whole thing is very creepy. Part of the structure of the piece is what the hell happened to him? My presentation may not make the Russian government, which has been trying to hide Tchaikovsky’s real past, very happy.”
What is known about Tchaikovsky
Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), created some of the most popular music in the classical repertoire.
He came from a military family. His father was a lieutenant-colonel; his grandfather a Ukrainian Cossack. Young Pyotr began piano lessons at age 5, and was fluent in French and German by age 6.
Later, after training for a civil service career, he enrolled in the newly opened St. Petersburg Conservatory, where the in-depth exposure to European principles and musical forms gave him a sense that art did not have to fall in line with the culture from which it was made; he tried to interweave Russian and Western forms and in the process he became an inspiration for other Russian composers. His first recognized masterpiece, the fantasy-overture “Romeo and Juliet,” premiered in 1869.
Like many artists, Tchaikovsky’s success did nothing to quell his bouts of depression, which some sources have linked to his mother’s early death (when he was 14) and later the death of a close friend.
And there was his closeted homosexuality. Tchaikovsky remained single most of his life, though there is proof that at age 37, he was married to a former student for just 2½ months.
After the marriage collapsed, Tchaikovsky traveled abroad for a year. During his travels, he was asked to compose a grand commemorative piece, in honor of multiple Russian events: the opening of Moscow’s new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II, and the 1882 Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition.
In six weeks, he completed “The 1812 Overture,” which he described as “very loud and noisy, but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merits in it.”
It became the work for which he is perhaps best known, along with his three ballets (“The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty”) and his orchestral tone poem, “Marche Slave.”
In 1884 Tchaikovsky was declared “hereditary nobility” by Czar Alexander III and he used the title to expand the European appreciation for Russian music as he conducted outside his home country. In 1893 he conducted the premiere of his “Sixth Symphony” in Saint Petersburg and nine days later he was dead. While it was initially believed that his death at age 53 was prompted by cholera, there has always been speculation that suicide is at the heart of the true story.
Although his music became wildly popular, critical opinion was mixed at first. Some Russians did not feel that his compositions were sufficiently representative of native musical values; they suspected that Europeans accepted the music because of its Western elements. Although he was lauded for transcending stereotypes of Russian classical music, some Westerners, like New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg, dismissed his music as “lacking in elevated thought.”
But Schonberg also wrote fondly of Tchaikovsky’s “sweet, inexhaustible, super-sensuous fund of melody.”
Although critical response to Tchaikovsky varied in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the 21st, he is revered for his tunefulness, originality, and craftsmanship. He is now viewed as “a composer of the first rank, writing music of depth, innovation and influence,” according to cultural historian Joseph Horowitz who maintains that, while the standing of Tchaikovsky’s music has fluctuated among critics, for the public, “it never went out of style.”
As Felder describes it, his new show isn’t so much about what it was like to be Tchaikovsky as it is about Fedler’s own “becoming Tchaikovsky.
“I had to think: Do I tell the story of a hero, or a real man?” Felder wonders.
Among other aspects of his life, Felder will confront the master’s homosexuality.
“It was his monomania,” Felder says. “He was very frightened that people would find out. That takes a huge place in this play.
“The music and the story are intertwined. There’s more direct playing and more complete pieces in this play than in any of the others. The music is so evocative, the pieces actually create dramatic moments.”
Long before the play was created, the research began. San Diego dramaturge Meghan Maiya undertook, according to Felder, “massive research for one and a half years to make sure that nothing is incorrect, false or misleading.”
The Czar shows up, as well as the “1812 Overture,” “Marche Slave,” and selections from “The Nutcracker,” “Swan lake,” “Eugene Onegin,” the 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies, the “Romeo and Juliet” suite, the first movement of the “Piano Concerto,” the “Violin Concerto,” and the little-known “Jurisprudence March.”
“I love every single piece,” Felder rhapsodizes. “No matter what I touch of Tchaikovsky, nothing disappoints me. I think, ‘How did he do this?’
“He wears his heart on his sleeve, and he got criticized for it. But his work is highly theatrical. Ferociously and brilliantly technical and emotionally expressive.
“He never makes technical mistakes. Though it’s demanding, everything is intended, and everything is clear. His work is never awkward pianistically or harmonically. Everything works. It’s always beautiful. You may not like it because it’s overwrought, but it works.”
Hershey Felder’s “Our Great Tchaikovsky” runs at the San Diego Repertory Theatre from Jan. 12-Feb. 12. Tickets and information: (619) 544-1000; sdrep.org.
*Photo by Vito DiStefano for the San Diego Jewish Journal