TR Robertson — Hershey Felder returns to the San Diego Rep Stage at the Lyceum bringing to life a moving, revised performance of one of the world’s greatest composers and pianist, Ludwig van Beethoven. Felder has presented over 5,000 performances of some of the world’s most outstanding personalities, such as George Gershwin, Chopin, Franz Liszt, Abraham Lincoln, Irving Berlin, Tchaikovsky and more. These shows are self-created and performed all over the world.
Felder becomes Gerhard von Breuning, for most of the 90 minute show, with an occasional change to Beethoven or his father Johann or Gerhard’s father. Patrons enter the theatre and immediately see an ominous stage setting filled with tombstones, including a recreation of Beethoven’s memorial, set behind a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano, provided by Steinway and Sons. The play takes place in Vienna, October 1863, as Gerhard is speaking to us as members of a medical group deciding upon the decision to do further research on what Beethoven died from and what caused his hearing loss. As Gerhard, we hear about the first time he met Beethoven and the impression the composer made on him. Gerhard will go on to tell us about the trials, tribulations, stories, myths and incredible circumstances surrounding the life of Beethoven. The von Breuning family would become important figures in his life and while visiting with their family, teaching some of their children piano, he would be introduced to classical literature. Beethoven also would meet Count Ferdinand von Waldstein who would become a friend of Beethoven and more importantly a financial supporter.
Photos by Christopher Ash
As Felder’s Gerhard takes us through the life of Beethoven we hear about his early development as a musician, his abusive alcoholic father, his early maturation when he had to take care of his two younger brothers, and stories surrounding a variety of the musical compositions he would produce. Beethoven’s most famous work includes 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 1 violin concerto, 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, a mass, an opera and a ballet. Gerhard tells about Beethoven’s attempts to follow the work of Mozart and then his encounter with Haydn. We also hear about Beethoven’s struggle to get custody of his deceased brother’s son
Gerhard touches on a mysterious side of Beethoven, his love interests. A story has it that he meet a young countess, Giulietta Guicciardi. He supposedly wrote a love letter, mentioning her name, but could not marry her due to their class difference. It is said he dedicated his Sonata 14 to her. This Sonata is commonly known as the “Moonlight Sonata”, not a name Beethoven called the work. It is said he did not name any of the compositions he wrote. Beethoven suffered from a number of medical issues. Headaches and fever would lead him to visit a Bohemian spa in Tepliz. Another story says that while there he wrote a love letter to his “Immortal Beloved”. No one knows who this “Immortal Beloved” is, but the woman it could be includes Giulietta or Therese Mafatti or Josephine Brunsvik or Anna Maria Erdody or Antonie Brentano, all women he would meet throughout his musical life and all women who were in a class above Beethoven, women he could not marry.
Gerhard tells of the most unfortunate part of Beethoven’s life for him personally, but a part of his life that would become the most significant musical part of his life, is what happened to him after 1798. This is the year he suffered an episode where he collapsed and upon rising had lost his hearing. His hearing would partially return, but along with this he would begin to suffer from a ringing in his ears, a form of tinnitus. This would stay with him for the rest of his life and he would slowly lose all hearing. He would write the “Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers where he would speak of thoughts of suicide. One story tells of Beethoven conducting the “Ninth Symphony” when completely deaf.
Felder masterfully played a number of Beethoven’s sonatas and piano concertos, fitting them into the time period or the life situation Beethoven found himself in as told by Gerhard. Felder also designed the scenic pieces for the set. The play was directed by Joel Zwick. His creative team included Christopher Ash for lighting design and the video projections used on the set, Erik Carstensen for sound design & production management. Felder’s costume was from Theatr’ Hall in Paris and the historical background and biographical research of Beethoven’s life was by Meghan Maiya, M.A.
Beethoven’s significance in the world of classical music rests in his role in moving the musical form into the world of romanticism and his use of a variety of musical instruments within the symphonic world. His musical range is unparalleled. Even in death, March 26, 1827, stories surround him. It is said that as he lay on his death bed in Vienna, a rainstorm broke out. He was unconscious, lightning struck, Beethoven suddenly sat up, shook his first in the air, fell back and died at the age of 56. Perhaps it happened, perhaps it didn’t. Cause of death has been listed as one of 6 medical occurrences or a combination of many. Felder’s portrayal of this master of the classical musical world is touching, informative, moving and a delight to see.
“Hershey Felder Beethoven” will be playing until March 24th at the Lyceum Theatre, Horton Plaza, staged by the San Diego Rep. Tickets are available at www.sdrep.org or call 619-544-1000. Next up at the Lyceum is “Sweat” beginning on April 18th.