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Chicago by John Olson

Beethoven As I Knew Him
Ravinia Festival

Also see John's review of Some Enchanted Evening: An Evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein

Chicagoans got an advance peek at the third of Hershey Felder's Beethoven as I Knew Him at Ravinia Festival on September 4th and 5th. The performance in Ravinia's Martin Theatre, a recital hall, was done with minimal set pieces and lighting. A full-scale production including projection designs and a complete set will be performed at Chicago's Drury Lane Water Tower Place in November and December, in repertory with the other two shows of the trilogy Felder calls his "Composer Sonata," George Gershwin Alone and Monsieur Chopin, all of which are one-man shows he has written and performed. As compensation for the lesser amount of stagecraft, though, was the chance to hear Felder play segments of Beethoven's best-known piano pieces—Moonlight Sonata, Pathétique sonata, and Für Elise—in the crystal-clear acoustics of the Martin.

The show is a departure from Felder's earlier works in that, for the most part, he plays not the subject of the biography, but an observer—Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Beethoven's best friend. At times, Felder slips into the character of Beethoven and others, but his monologue is delivered primarily from the perspective of von Breuning, who was only 12 when introduced to Beethoven and knew him for only two years before the composer's death at age 56. Von Breuning's recollections are comprised of recountings of stories told by his father and material published some 47 years after Beethoven's death. This distancing from his subject gives a different and much less empathetic tone than Felder's Gershwin and Chopin pieces.

While the show certainly has sympathy for the difficult experiences of Beethoven's life—an abusive father, difficult relationships with his brothers, failed romances, and the hearing loss that began in his late twenties—Felder provides an increased dose of music history and theory. He makes the case for Beethoven as the greatest composer of all time and responsible for a sea change in serious music as the first serious composer to write music as an expression of emotion rather than following conventional, expected structures. He illustrates his points musically, playing Beethoven passages as Haydn might have more predictably developed them and contrasting them with the actual Beethoven compositions. It's a less dramatic and more didactic approach than Felder's Chopin piece, but with the dry sense of humor he gives to von Breuning, it's entertaining nonetheless and allows von Breuning and Felder to express and explain their awe at Beethoven's genius.

Again directed by Joel Zwick, Felder's acting has developed to his highest level yet, with less obvious effort to please his audience. While unafraid to unleash the full fury and passion of Beethoven, his von Breuning is a restrained and knowing mensch. Felder's accomplished work at the piano is a continued delight, though there seems somewhat less of it than in his previous pieces, understandably so as Beethoven's body of work is not as concentrated in piano pieces as Chopin's or Gershwin's. (Key sections of Beethoven's 5th and 9th Symphonies are heard in this production on orchestral recordings.)

Felder's program notes explain that he views Beethoven as the first movement of his "Composer Sonata," though it was the last to be written. When viewed in repertory before Monsieur Chopin, the sonata's "second movement," Beethoven's role in the progression from the classical period to the romantic period should be an effective setup for the highly romantic and emotional music and story of Chopin. Felder's master plan for his trilogy, written and premiered in reverse order, is now evident. It promises to be a journey through the evolution of romanticism through its influence on 20th century music. Together with the chance to see Beethoven As I Knew Him in its complete staging, audiences may want to take in Felder's performance of the three pieces in repertory later this Fall to see if together the plays have an impact greater than the sum of their parts.

Beethoven As I Knew Him was performed at the Ravinia Festival's Martin Theatre on September 4 and 5, 2009.

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