Showing posts with label Our Great Tchaikovsky. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Our Great Tchaikovsky. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Russian around: Tchaikovsky goes to Victoria

I have to doff a respectful cap to writer-actor-musician Hershey Felder. To create a one-man show in which you personify a composer, tell his story, play his music and hold the stage all alone for 1hr 40mins takes not only talent and charisma but a few shedloads of damned hard work, and in Our Great Tchaikovsky - the multitalented Canadian performer's latest musical incarnation, following Gershwin, Bernstein, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven - he does all of this with enormous aplomb, plus Russian accent.

The show, which is directed by Trevor Hay, has just opened at The Other Palace, a theatre I thought I'd not been to before. And I'd been wondering what happened to the St James Theatre. Turns out the latter was bought up by ALW's theatre company and has changed both its name and its aspect. A mission statement from Lloyd Webber in the programme explains that it's now a space for burgeoning, experimental music theatre of all kinds. And its atmosphere has undergone a sea-change. It's buzzing, and it attracted a good, strong audience of non-specialists to see Felder become Tchaikovsky, and I have to doff a cap to that as well, because getting general audiences along to shows about classical music is not a walk in the park.

About town...
Photo: Hershey Felder Presents
Nor was the performance, entirely. Felder, with vast flair, brings us Tchaikovsky's life history, with all its anguish, fear and hints of scandal, switching persona in a twink from the young-gay-about-town Pyotr Ilyich to his mentors and nemeses: a portly Balakirev, a whine-toned Nikolai Rubinstein. The setting evokes Tchaikovsky's home at Klin: wooden desk, samovar, rug, and a backdrop of birch-forest which soon comes to life thanks to clever digital animation. A portrait frame's images change according to where we are in the story: mother, Nadezhda von Meck, beloved nephew Bob and the famous scowl-eyed portrait of the composer himself all appear in due course. The background conjures a range of visual treats: animals in the forest, New York in the snow (The Nutcracker was thought out on its streets when our composer went there to open a new concert hall built by Mr Carnegie) and mountains transforming into a flight of swans as Swan Lake music accompanies some pertinent information about the Sochi Winter Olympics and the policy of the Russian government towards homosexuality since 2013.

Silver birches...
Photo: Hershey Felder Presents
The show is certainly aimed at an audience unfamiliar with Tchaikovsky's personal story and Felder has handled its thorny, uncomfortable aspects with admirable clarity: upfront about the mystery of his death, fairly explicit about the composer's affection for young boys, and even more so about the relevance of the unfortunate man's personal history to unwelcome developments in the present day. He's crammed in a lot. Most of the important pieces get at least a passing mention and considerable chunks of music are heard throughout, some recorded, more in the powerful hands of Felder at the piano, meshing words and music to the manner born.

The only thing is - and this might not bother everyone, but it bothers me because of my pianoy side - Felder is a smashing actor, but rather too smashing a pianist in not always the best sense. He can certainly play (back in the '80s he studied with Jerome Lowenthal, among others), but he has a slightly bombastic touch, and many were the moments when I wondered if there might have been another way to approach this theatre piece: namely, by collaborating with a second person who would serve as full-time pianist? This worked extremely effectively for Mikhail Rudy's adaptation of The Pianist, in which Rudy plays and an actor (I saw the splendid Peter Guinness) inhabits the script and the whole is bound together with excellent direction (if I remember right, as it was some years ago, it was Daniel Kramer). In Felder's one-person-does-all account, though, there's possibly a bit too much playing - and, crucially, it slows the pace of the story. One might lose 15 mins with judicious cuts, upping the tempo and introducing, potentially, some interesting interactions that would enable Felder to concentrate on the drama and deepen the complexity, the pain and the shocking elements (of which there could be many more) of the heartbreaking tale of Pyotr Ilyich.

Having so said, there are moments at which the juxtaposition of different pieces of music makes a dramatic point even better than the words. The contrast between what felt like an endless extract of the ghastly 1812 Overture (even Tchaikovsky hated it) and the simplest, tenderest piece from the Album for the Young proved in a few seconds that there's more genuine feeling in one phrase of the latter than in all the lurid crashes, booms and fireworks that went before.

Anyway, do go and see it. Now running to 22 October.