Hershey Felder has gotten a lot of requests, but his most recent project resulted from what he described as the most terrifying of his career. “We look forward to your prompt reply,” finished a message from the Russian government, in which they asked him to devote his next show to Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky and bring it to their country. Russia’s great nineteenth century composer isn’t that strange a subject for Felder. A virtuoso pianist, he has written and performed several one-person biographical shows about men from Frédéric Chopin to Irving Berlin. The Chicago native’s self-taught ability to play the piano while facing the audience and telling a story in-character has won him a devoted following. But Tchaikovsky is difficult because many of his major career, personal, and artistic decisions were motivated by his desire to keep his homosexuality a secret, and in Russia, it’s illegal to acknowledge that.
The Trade-Offs for a Life in Music
Nonetheless, Felder made Tchaikovsky the subject of his latest play, which is now in its Chicago premiere in Steppenwolf Theatre’s upstairs space. He opens the show by telling the story of how it came to be, and then, with a shift in lighting and subtle change in voice inspired by a surviving recording of the composer, transforms into Tchaikovsky as a child. Eyes-a-twinkle, he tells us how he used to play variations on Chopin in front of the famous Polish pianist himself at only six years old. His passion was always music, and although his parents prepared him for a life in the civil service, he reached adulthood just as the first classical music conservatories in Russia were being founded. He also made a devoted group of friends, but although some of them were openly gay, he soon lost the nerve to be seen in public with them, which made him vulnerable to blackmail.
Fame came through hard work. There was a group of composers, The 5, who wanted him to write music that was overtly nationalistic. His boss, Nikolai Rubinstein, criticized his innovations. Felder-as-Tchaikovsky does amusing caricatures of each. As he tells it, he refused to change what he knew were the right artistic choices and found vindication through such works as Romeo and Juliet, his first concerto, and the opera Eugene Onegin. Felder plays selections from each, and the context of knowing these pieces’ personal significance to the composer would be enough to paint a vision of Tchaikovsky’s life for the audience even without the lovely, impressionistic projections designed by Christopher Ash.
Hershey Felder Presents Samples from a Tradition’s Birth
Tchaikovsky left a wealth of personal correspondence to plumb for material. On matters the subject could not have known of, Felder seamlessly turns back into himself to fill in the audience. One of the pleasures of his concerts is getting to learn about the style and contributions of a particular musician in terms laymen can understand. As we hear more about how Tchaikovsky and his peers created Russia’s institutions of classical music, Felder gives us a fleeting sample of each major work’s emotional thrust. There’s the noisy braggadocio of the 1812 Overture, the mystical dreaminess of The Nutcracker, the melancholy of the 6th Symphony. And, of course, Swan Lake.
Not Just Ancient History
Tchaikovsky wrote so much iconic music that in a show that lasts less than two hours, even Felder could not cover all of it. He doesn’t push it; instead he weaves it into his narrative where appropriate, sometimes setting aside a particular piece chronologically to revisit it where it makes more sense emotionally. His mastery of the piano is so complete that one hardly misses the effect of a full orchestra, although he has Tchaikovsky comment humorously on the arranging it takes to do this. Felder’s scenic design evokes his subject’s beloved house in Klin and even for a one-person show, director Trevor Hay’s staging feels very intimate. The audience this reviewer attended with were clearly long-time fans of Felder’s, and the author-performer managed an illuminating talk-back with panache. Still, the fact that the show cannot be performed in Russia casts a grim shadow on the proceedings. Felder doesn’t take a stance on how Tchaikovsky died and it’s beside the point. That gay people’s artist work continues to be exploited by their persecutors is what Tchaikovsky, and Swan Lake in particular, have come to represent to Western audiences. Felder’s biographies of historical composers have a reputation for their meticulous crafting, but this one feels more urgent.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
All photos in slider credited to Hershey Felder Presents.
1650 N Halsted St, Chicago
Through May 13
Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm
Saturdays-Sundays at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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