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Beethoven, As I Knew Him
Drury Lane Water Tower Place

Also see John's review of Miracle on 34th Street

Beethove, As I Knew Him
Hershey Felder
Playwright-pianist-actor (and producer) Hershey Felder twice performed this one-man biographical show at the Ravinia Festival in September in the Festival's Martin Theatre, a recital hall with fine acoustics for music but limited capability for theatrical lighting. The piece is now in performance at a much more suitable venue, and Felder is able to use more stagecraft in telling the story of the famed composer's tortured life.

Felder's third installment of his "Composer Sonata"—a trilogy that also includes his George Gershwin Alone and Monsieur Chopin—differs from the earlier two in that the story is told by an observer: Gerhard von Breuning, who was the son of Beethoven's best friend and was a youth of 13 when he first met the composer in 1825. Felder based the piece on von Breuning's recollection, From the Schwarzspanierhaus (Beethoven's final home in Vienna). The memoir was written in 1874, and von Breuning's recollections rely heavily on stories told later by his father and others. Accordingly, there's a distance from Felder's subject in this piece that's distinct from the Chopin and Gershwin plays in which the composers, played by Felder, were the primary characters. Here, Felder spends more stage time as von Breuning than as Beethoven. Compared to the September Ravinia performance, though, Felder has dialed up the emphasis on the composer and seems to inhabit Beethoven with more intensity than before, while allowing von Breuning to become a more neutral observer. As a result, there's ultimately no loss in connection to the subject.

Felder's device of using von Breuning as narrator is effective and appropriate, though. As Beethoven became more solitary and troubled during his later years, when von Breuning knew him, the composer—living in squalor and having the appearance of a pauper—would certainly have had limited self-awareness and little ability to tell an accurate story of his own life. Even with the disadvantages of memory and the distance of time, surely von Breuning provided a more accurate depiction than Beethoven would have been able to do.

The stage magic and revised focus of Felder's performance, again directed sharply by Joel Zwick, increase our empathy for the composer. The key events of his tortured life are all chronicled, including his childhood under an abusive and alcoholic father, the death of his mother when Beethoven was only 17 (an event which cancelled his plans to study under Mozart), dysfunctional relationships with his brother and nephew, and of course the loss of hearing which began around age 26 and prevented him from being fully able to enjoy listening to music even as he composed some of the world's greatest classics. The lighting design by Richard K. Norwood helps makes transitions between characters, and projections by Christopher Ash and Andrew Wilder further transition the audience in Beethoven's world by providing portraits of the people and places in Beethoven's life.

We additionally benefit from the historical perspective von Breuning enjoyed some 47 years after Beethoven's death. At points the narrator becomes professor, giving a most accessible lecture on Beethoven's role in the birth of romantic music, freeing it from the constrictions of classical form and allowing it to express emotion.

All of this would be quite disappointing if not accompanied by a large serving of music masterfully performed. Felder, an accomplished concert pianist as well as actor and playwright, performs some of Beethoven's best known piano solos—Für Elise and the Pathétique Sonata among them. Snippets of Beethoven's best known symphonies—the 5th and 9th—are heard on recordings.

Those who have seen Felder's earlier shows will find this one to be more emotional and intense as compared to the lighthearted George Gershwin Alone and the melancholy Monsieur Chopin, which included good doses of comic relief provided by Felder's gallery of minor characters. Here, he seems to trust his acting and the audience to appreciate the tragedy of this great composer's life. He fully captures Beethoven's solitude and loneliness in the last years of life, convincingly playing much older than his actual age and being larger than life without losing his humanity.

Felder's shows in his trilogy all demonstrate how the life experiences and humanity of each composer were made possible and were expressed in the music they wrote. How appropriate that he should conclude the trilogy with this tribute to the composer who made music into an art form that could so fully communicate emotion.

Beethoven As I Knew Him will be performed through December 20, 2009 at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago. For tickets, visit the box office; call 312-642-2000 or visit www.drurylanewatertower.com.


Photo: Scott Schwartz

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