The first time I saw Felder onstage was when he starred in his one man show, George Gershwin Alone. He guided the audience on a historical journey about one America’s most famous composer and pianist. When the Artistic Director of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Paul Crewes announced Felder would be coming to his theatre as Tchaikovsky, Russia’s greatest composer and pianist, I had to see this show.
Since July 19 audiences are applauding Felder as Tchaikovsky, however on Monday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m., Felder will perform a one night only show – The Great American Songbook Sing-Along. The show will take the audience through 100 years of American music from the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
This show premiered at San Diego Repertory Theatre and later Felder performed the show at the Laguna Playhouse before arriving to his sold out theatre in Beverly Hills. Fortunately he agreed to perform for extended dates due to the enthusiastic demand.
The scenic design by Hershey Felder has a black grand Steinway and Sons piano in the center of a dark stage. One bright spot illuminates the stage in front of the piano. As Felder walks out towards the audience, he reads aloud a letter from Moscow inviting him to perform his show about Tchaikovsky in Russia. Felder he tells the audience, “it’s a terrifying invitation, considering the current International affairs.”
Since Felder has “Russian blood running through his veins” he easily changes his voice and accent to become Russia’s most famous composer. Tchaikovsky is best known for his beautiful musical ballets Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.
Directed by Felder collaborator Trevor Hay, Hershey Felder’s Our Great Tchaikovsky takes the audience to the 1800s in Russia, where we learn Tchaikovsky began piano lessons at the age of six.
The lighting and screen projection images by Brian McMullen enhance Felder’s music with scenes of nature and the people throughout the show. The set also has a few orange flickering candelabras and period furniture pieces.
Even though Tchaikovsky’s mother “was not a handsome or affectionate woman,” she had beautiful hands, especially when she played the piano. Tchaikovsky started to play the piano, because mother and son showed affection through their hands while playing on the piano together. Music constantly ran in his head, even though his mother told him, “music is not for boys, it’s for ladies.” Forbidden to play, he exercised on window sills and even broke a glass, cutting his hands. His parents relented, yet told him he could play the piano “no more than necessary.” Since his mother and father felt music was not a profession, they sent him at the age of 10 away to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence boarding school in Saint Petersburg to learn to be a civil servant.
While describing how he traveled 800 miles away from home to the school, the back screen displays his journey among trees as Felder plays the piano while telling Tchaikovsky’s story.
A moving moment was when the tortured boy screams out for his Momma not to leave. Another is when his school closes due to a Scarlet Fever epidemic. Tchaikovsky went home with a teacher and her son. Little did Tchaikovsky know he was a carrier and the teacher’s son contracted the illness and died. Tchaikovsky felt guilty about the death. He also survived a cholera outbreak when the Russian drinking water was “poisoned with sewage.” His mother did get sick, and Tchaikovsky made the journey home just in time before she passed away. Years later he couldn’t remember her face, yet he could “remember her beautiful hands playing the piano.”
Soon his “tears in life didn’t come from his eyes”, his “tears came out of the keyboard.” After graduating with honors, his eligibility for a career in civil service, led Tchaikovsky to started making money and buying things, becoming of “a man about town seeking pleasure.” Hanging around other men, people called him “booger”, a slang term for homosexual. He toned down his appearance so no one would “know who he really was.”
Joining the Russian Musical Society in Saint Petersburg, he devoted his life to music at a time when “Everyone in Russia thinks they want to be a composer.”
Tchaikovsky “swallowed musical scores whole,” listening to all of the greatest composers – Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. One of his teachers taught him to see life and nature as art. Tchaikovsky worked early in the morning to late at night capturing nature in sound. His first piece was the sound of a lark. While Felder played the piece, the back screen had beautiful images of deer moving and birds flying across the screen.
By the age of 25 her emerged from the conservatory as a composer and later became a teacher.
Falling in love with an opera singer, he was crushed to learn that she broke off their engagement due to another suitor telling her that Tchaikovsky was a “booger.”
Later he did marry another woman to calm down the “booger” rumors, however the marriage lasted less than three months. Later the “old wife” would not grant him a divorce and blackmailed him to send her money or she would tell everyone who he really was.
He did have a fondness for a woman who corresponded with him in over 1000 letters. She supported him with money for over 15 years to help him continue his music, just as long as they never saw each other in person.
When Andrew Carnegie opened his grand Carnegie Hall, he needed a big name draw for the Hall’s opening festivities. Tchaikovsky was one of the best names in music in 1891. Invited to the United States to play at Carnegie Hall, Tchaikovsky found Americans appreciated his work more than Russians.
What received laughs from the audience was when Felder revealed that when the Russians commissioned a piece to commemorate its success against Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, Tchaikovsky was going through a difficult time and the piece contained “no love, just a lot of noise,” yet it became one of his most popular pieces and made him the most money. He played 1812 at the dedication of Dale Carnegie’s grand Carnegie Hall including a climactic volley of cannon fire, chimes and brass fanfare at the finale.
On the back screen a display of fireworks accompanied Felder’s piano performance. To this day, 1812 is one of the most played pieces during Independence Day firework shows in America.
Later Tchaikovsky earned a honorary doctorate while at Cambridge in England and wrote The Nutcracker. He wrote this while imagining a nutcracker defeating an evil mouse king. While playing this on the piano, Felder shows a performance of the ballet on the back screen.
When he composed Swan Lake in 1877 in Moscow, it was ripped to shreds by critics.
Towards the end of Tchaikovsky’s life, he was attracted to his 21 year old nephew “Bob.” This young man may have been the loving inspiration for the composer’s enigmatic Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.” Nine days later, the healthy 53-year-old was found dead. To this day, no one really knows why he died. There are several theories – Cholera? Suicide ordered by the Czar? Shame for his infatuation towards his nephew? The truth is still a mystery.
Russia is socially conservative regarding homosexuality and denies that Tchaikovsky was gay. They even played his Swan Lake piece at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
At the end of the show Felder holds up his invitation to Russia and asks the audience “Should I go to Russia and perform this show?” My friend and I said “No” while others in the audience shouted “Yes.” As Felder turned his back to his audience and put on a Tchaikovsky beard, he plays Tchaikovsky’s last song, as the stage turned dark. A very powerful image displayed on the back screen, gave me goosebumps. With a loud sound, we knew our answer. Our Great Tchaikovsky is a powerful and emotional journey told by an extremely talented storyteller and piano player.
To purchase a ticket before August 13, click on this link – Tickets