Great Music, Fascinating Performance Combined in “Our Great Tchaikovsky” at Hartford Stage

By Karen Isaacs

 Hershey Felder has combined his considerable piano skills, with acting, writing and directing, to create a series of theater pieces on the lives of great composers.

In each piece, he becomes the composer and helps to put the music into context of the lives and times of these men.  Hartford Stage audiences have seen him as George Gershwin in George Gershwin Alone and Frederic Chopin in Monsieur Chopin.

 Now he is returning to Hartford Stage through Aug. 27 in Our Great Tchaikovsky. It is an enchanting evening of music, biography and commentary on the life of the man who gave us not only symphonies and concerti but also ballets. Felder said after the show in a talk back, that Tchaikovsky is said to be the most played classical composer annually.

Surrounded by a scenic design  suggestive of a Russian living room (designer by Felder) and wonderful lighting and projections by Christopher Ash, you are transported to 19th century Russia.

Felder has the ability to tell the biographical details of Tchaikovsky’s life and comment upon them. He becomes not only him but a few other characters in his life.

Often he is playing Tchaikovsky’s compositions while telling the story of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who was, at the age of 10, left at boarding school in St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles from home to train to become a civil servant. Already he had shown great musical talent, but his parents did not view that as an appropriate career choice. His mother died four years later.

If there is a central focus to Felder’s presentation, it is twofold: that for most of his career he was more recognized and admired outside of Russia than within it. The musical establishment, including his contemporaries, consistently found little talent in his works. It wasn’t just at the beginning when his teacher and noted pianist Nicholai Rubenstein declared that the now famous first piano concerto needed to be totally rewritten, but it continued throughout his life even with critics seeing little of value in “The Nutcracker.”

The other focus is the impact of his sexuality on his life and music. He was homosexual (though the current Russian government has declared otherwise) and may have had pedophiliac tendencies. Felder hints at this obliquely. Much of his life was spent worrying about being “outed” to authorities and the larger world.  His patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, cut off support as a condition so that her family would not reveal the information. Though he married, in part to tamp down the rumors, they separated almost immediately. Later in life, his still-wife (who had born three children by lovers) blackmailed him for money.

Tchaikovsky was criticized in Europe for being “too Russian” in his compositions, but in Russia, he was accused of being “too Western.”

Felder’s performance includes a convincing accent and a conversational manner with the audience, as well as brilliant piano playing. He includes an excerpt from his arrangement for the piano of the famous Piano Concerto No. 1.  You would like to hear more.

If there a quibble to this very enjoyable and enlightening evening, it is his connection of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and fears of revelation with current Russian governmental policies regarding homosexuals. While the point is well taken, it pops up too often.

If you love music, this is a show you should definitely see. Tickets are available through Hartford Stage

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