Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Hershey Felder steps onto the stage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts first as himself, discussing "the most terrifying invitation I have ever received," a letter from a Russian official asking him to come and perform his Our Great Tchaikovsky in the home country of the greatest 19th-century composer the motherland produced. Mr. Felder then most amazingly transforms his voice, stance and countenance to become the master composer himself in order to tell Tchaikovsky's life story and in the end to explain why our present day composer/playwright, Hershey Felder, might want to think twice before accepting this offer to perform Our Great Tchaikovsky in today's Russia.
As he has done in his other long stream of staged composer biographies given now in over 4500 performances around the world, Hershey Felder tells Tchaikovsky's story both in the first person of the composer and by becoming the other people of his lifefrom parents and mentors to critics and enemies, spouses and lovers. But the real story of his subject reveals itself as this modern maestro takes command of the glorious and massive Steinway on center stage. Once Mr. Felder succumbs to the music of Peter Ilich at the keyboard, he enters into a facial trance and eerie stare and lets his fingers and the keys do the talking and the singing of Tchaikovsky's oft-troubled and sad life.
With eyes glazed but shoulder-length hair vibrating violently, he pounds vigorously the volume-loaded, heavy chords that are trademark of the Russian great. Soon, however, Mr. Felder releases his fingers literally to fly in all directions over the keyboard as the music takes a different, lighter route. Then, once again, the music's mood shifts as Mr. Felder turns to the audience (still playing, of course) and begins recounting as Tchaikovsky another chapter of the composer's life. All along, the audience is in complete and collective aweboth due to the until-now-unknown details being learned of this icon's life and due to the concert being performed that is worthy of any symphonic hall in the land.
While witnessing Peter Ilich as young as a 6-year-old boy beginning to write and perform his music on his family's piano is fascinating, experiencing his compositions and the stories behind them becomes mesmerizing. For example, as the young boy learns to capture nature on the keyboard in his early work "The Rising Song of the Lark," we hear the birds in the upper register and the other animals of the forest in the lower; but we also get to watch birds fly through the tall-trunked, white birches that fill the back stage and its corners while young deer nibble through the snow-covered forest. The jaw-dropping, hypnotic projections and the subtle shifts in accompanying lightingboth designed by Christopher Ashcreate scenes that bring enhanced meaning and emotion to music already laden heavy with both. Mr. Ash's artistry reigns throughout the 90-minute evening, from scenes of wintery New York City of the late 19th century (inspiration for Nutcracker) to recreations of the 2014 Russian Winter Olympics (with skating ballerinas in swirling feathers as Swan Lake music fills the theatre).
One of the more astonishing but also amusing moments of the evening occurs when Peter Ilich tells with a twinkle in his eye the story of how he introduces on Christmas Eve in 1874 his now-famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor to his mentor and chief critic, Nikolai Rubinstein. Mr. Felder first sings with great aplomb the orchestra parts of the concerto while playing the well-known, resonating chords on the piano. He then somehow plays both piano and orchestra parts on the same keyboard (while also telling further details of the story). Finally, a recorded, symphonic sound surrounds us (thanks to the incredible sound design of Erik Carstensen) as the piano mastery of Mr. Felder is allowed to shine brilliantly forth, resulting in a heartfelt ovation from an appreciative audience.
Running throughout Mr. Felder's version of the composer's life are the background stories concerning to whom his most famous pieces were dedicated. We learn that his love of his own sex both inspires works such as Romeo and Juliet and Violin Concerto in D Major, but we also hear how that same attraction also plagues the master's life in a society where same-sex love could lead to years of Siberian exile. The sensitivity yet frankness that Mr. Felder brings to this ongoing stream of Tchaikovsky's life brings this story of 150 years ago into modern context and disturbing implications as he plays "Swan Lake" and explains why the invitation from modern Russia to perform Our Great Tchaikovsky is indeed terrifying. The storyboth historical and modernthat emerges leaves a deeply emotional and lasting mark on us as audience.
Trevor Hay directs Our Great Tchaikovsky with minute attention to every second counting in advancing the story of this virtuoso's life. The playwright/performer himself has also designed a stunning set to surround his grand piano, with white birches towering in the back and two beautifully detailed rooms of his life story bookending the stage.
The sustained, standing ovation of the opening audience must surely provide sighs of relief for decisions well made to the several thousand, record-breaking ticket-holders who will flock to Mountain View in the next few weeks to see Hershey Felder's latest tour de force performance. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley proves that the company has indeed become an excellent, annual landing point for Mr. Felder, and one only hopes that Our Great Tchaikovsky will be followed in the near future by the appearance of yet another of the greats of world music.
Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky continues through February 11, 2018, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available online at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.