Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Showbiz without a safety net

You know how to make a critic feel really, seriously bad? Write to her the moment her review is published and tell her you did that entire performance with an infection in your finger that had made it swell up so much that you couldn’t fit it between the notes. A couple of weeks ago I went to review Hershey Felder’s one-man show Our Great Tchaikovsky at the Other Palace Theatre…and about 10 minutes after I published the write-up, there pinged in a message from the man himself... Contrite, I went to see him last Friday to hear about how he creates his composer-focused performances – and about what he was going through on press night.

Silver birch: Felder as Tchaikovsky
We’re in Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin. The stage set that evokes it, anyway. Felder takes the piano stool and talks to me almost the same way that he performs, expressing himself on the piano as much as in words. He is soft-spoken when not acting, but tenacious and determined as anyone must be when creating theatre pieces in which he both acts and plays the piano – in the Tchaikovsky one, almost continuously for an hour and 40 minutes – and performing them eight times a week.

“I arrived on the Sunday, and someone’s luggage got caught on this finger, ripped the nail in half and dug all the way into my finger,” Felder explains. “So I didn’t play for two days, but when I started that week of performances, because I put pressure on it, it got worse and started to swell. Tchaikovsky is awkward as it is, but I was in so much pain – every time I was between two black notes I couldn’t fit.”

Bandages didn’t help much, ice made it worse and Felder tried changing his technique and his fingering in order to accommodate the problem: “The pain was massive and I had to play with flat fingers rather than my usual technique.” Flat fingers worked for Horowitz, he adds, but his own experience was slightly less happy. Then, 15 minutes before the start on press night, “the whole thing broke open and there was blood all over the keys.” It seems nothing short of miraculous that he was able to go ahead with that performance all.

Felder grew up in Canada in a family in which both sides were Holocaust survivors – his background mingles Russian, Polish and Hungarian strands. “My Hungarian grandmother survived because she was standing in line for a train when a little boy came up to her and told her to play dead next time she saw a pile of bodies,” he recounts. Her family, having survived the war, then escaped at the time of the Revolution in 1956.

Felder, fascinated by golden-age pianists such as Busoni and Moritz Rosenthal, studied at Juilliard with Jerome Lowenthal (who had studied with Cortot, among others). He was set on the idea of a career performing and composing, and made his debut in London playing Rhapsody in Blue at the Queen Elizabeth Hall when he was 19. But then, delving into his family history in Poland, he was exploring Chopin heritage too and came across a piano that belonged to the composer. The insights it brought him into how Chopin must have played, he says, set him thinking about how to create a performance to explore the matter. “But everyone said: ‘Chopping? Who’s heard of Chopping? Nobody will come! Do someone everyone’s heard of. Do Cole Porter...’”

He didn’t want to do Cole Porter. “But I saw how the audience responded to the music when I played Rhapsody in Blue. Next thing I know, I’m telling the story of Gershwin. I didn’t think there would be a business in story-telling. But there is. There really is. Today people come to me from all over the world for help in creating similar shows.” Among them was Mona Golabek, whose memoir The Pianist of Willesden Lane was a smash hit here in London and has now been optioned for a film.

Defying the nay-sayers, Felder pressed ahead with more composer productions. His Bernstein show brought him a new friendship with an unexpected new admirer, the great pianist Byron Janis (who is now 89). He did do Chopin – and people did go. Ditto Beethoven, Liszt and Irving Berlin. The Liszt production, devised for the composer's bicentenary a few years back, focused on his support for Wagner, asking the crucial question, according to Felder, "If you know someone is going to turn out bad, do you support him anyway?" - a philosophical argument that set some audiences raging, but pushed the concept behind the show onto a new and vital level. 

We nearly got his Irving Berlin in London this time, but four weeks before opening night, Felder says, he was so disillusioned with developments in Trump’s America that he switched to do his recently premiered Tchaikovsky instead. “I felt I couldn’t come to London and sing ‘God Bless America’ after they pardoned Arpaio,” he declares.

Our Great Tchaikovsky doesn’t shirk difficult politics. “It’s ostensibly about Tchaikovsky,” Felder says, “but actually it’s about propaganda, about erasing who Tchaikovsky was, what Russia is doing now and how this threatens Americans in various communities on a daily basis. It scares the hell out of me.” But in the panorama of Tchaikovsky’s life, the story is relevant without effort, lavishly complemented by digital animations that project across the setting of Klin images of animals grazing in birch forests, images that transform from mountains to dancers to swans, and New York in the snow (for The Nutcracker, dreamed up there when Tchaikovsky visited to open Carnegie Hall). “The show evokes an era,” says Felder, “and that era is Russia in the late 19th century.”

Rest assured that Felder is one heck of a terrific pianist, with sensitive and colourful touch, and flair to spare. Yet if you’re battling an infected finger plus a difficult acoustic (the Other Palace Theatre is extremely dry), what to do? A true pro presses on, and Felder is as total a pro as you would find anywhere on the globe. There’s no business like showbusiness, as someone once said, and for a one-man show there’s no understudy, no backup, no safety net. Now that he’s better, I might make a return visit.