Review: Hershey Felder Unveils "Beethoven"

 Hershey Felder as Beethoven in BEETHOVEN - Photo by Christopher Ash

Hershey Felder as Beethoven in BEETHOVEN - Photo by Christopher Ash

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

At the age of nine, while attempting to play one of Beethoven’s most recognized and beloved piece’s Fur Elise, Hershey Felder developed an interest in one of the world’s greatest composers.

Not only is Felder a brilliant actor, concert pianist, storyteller, he also is a historian. Right now at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, he is telling a masterful story about the life of Ludwig van Beethoven.

This one-man show is directed by Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and based on the original Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus by Viennese doctor Gerhard von Breuning with text by Felder.

This is not Felder and Zwick’s first collaboration, they have worked together to bring the story of George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin and Maestro Bernstein to audiences.

Known for his “Theatrical Impressionism” Felder isn’t Beethoven, instead, he is the Viennese doctor who spent his boyhood by the Maestro’s side as the son of Beethoven’s best friend and neighbor. By choosing bits of pieces from Beethoven’s life, Felder creates an evocative tale for audience members to decide who he was as a composer, musician, and a man.

The story begins at a graveyard with Felder standing over a dug out of the ground metal box filled with Beethoven’s remains. Felder designed the dark set with a black grand piano in the center among a variety of headstones. Behind the piano is a large headstone etched with Ludwig van Beethoven’s name. We learn later it’s a replica of his headstone that rests in Vienna.

It took Felder 22 years of research discovering the man who composed “Emperor Concerto,” the 5th and 9th symphonies, multiple sonatas, and chamber music for royalty and their court, dancing and religion. Many of these pieces were created while he was deaf.

Felder gives the illusion that playing the piano is easy as he gracefully and skillfully mesmerizes the audience strike each key and chord softly, briskly and emotionally.

Paul Crewes, The Wallis’ Artistic Director is thrilled to have Hershey Felder at The Wallis. Hershey Felder's return to The Wallis is, as always, a treat for us as well as for our appreciative audiences, who will experience the humanity of the man behind the music and the humanity in the music itself,” said Crewes. “Beethoven is a prime example of the capacity of man to overcome personal tragedy and commit to leaving the world a better, richer place.”

Born in Bonn, Beethoven was raised by an angel and a devil. His mother had a loving heart and would sing Beethoven to sleep; while his father was a failed musician and an abusive alcoholic. He would beat his son if he didn’t play a song on the piano correctly and many times lock him in the cellar.

We learn the doctor’s grandmother saved Beethoven’s life at the age of 11, by hiring him to come into her home to teach her son how to play the piano in their salon. “Even though his life was terrible at home, his heart was spirited and everyone loved him,” said Felder portraying the grandson.

Beethoven started composing at an early age, because of his tumultuous life. One can hear his pain as Felder starts most of the pieces in Minor chords, before ending with lighter and happier melodic notes.

When his mother passed away, Beethoven had to grow up quickly. Instead of going to Vienna to study with Mozart, he stayed home to take care of and protect his two younger brothers from their abusive father.

His sadness is displayed in his Moonlight Sonata in C sharp. As Felder plays this piece, the audience immediately recognizes the first line and vocally show their appreciation. The undulated waves of emotions in this song helped this song gain popularity. Even though it’s one of his most famous pieces, Beethoven believed he had so many better pieces. What I liked is the feminine quality that might have been inspired by the love of his mother or love of a woman as displayed on the back curtain with the help of lighting and projection design by Christopher Ash and projection co-design by Lawrence Siefert. While Felder played the piano, silhouettes of an angelic woman, trees, interiors of a home, and cityscape of Vienna enhanced his theatrical story.

Between the ages 26 to 31, Beethoven developed ringing in his ears and went deaf. This was also the time he wrote his most famous symphony and chamber pieces, including his 5th Symphony. While Felder expertly played this colorful piece, he shared how Beethoven created this first cord, from vibrations while leaning against a tree. A bird in the tree knocked his beak against the tree four times. Beethoven felt the vibrations and used those four beats for the beginning of his most famous 5th symphony.

At the end of the show, the audience had a much better understanding of the duality of Beethoven. His heart was full of love, and he created more dolce sweetness than other composers at this time. His music also cries out in pain. Is the pain of his mother dying or pain of his devil father?

After the 90 minute show, Felder took his first curtain call and then motioned everyone to stay in their seat. After every performance, he enjoys inviting the audience to ask questions about the show. When asked how Beethoven went deaf, Felder wonders if the ringing and burning in his ears might have been from constantly being hit in the head by his father. Some say he died from lead poisoning too.

When asked if he believes Beethoven was crazy, Felder replied “I think not. I imagine he was frightened, but not mad.”

While researching Beethoven he traveled to Washington D.C. to see many of his scores at the Library of Congress. “They are in excellent condition. He might have been a funny man, but not remotely crazy.” Felder ended with “Look at the focus in his music, it’s the product of someone who can see beyond what we can see. lt is not the music of a lunatic, but then of the greatest musician ever.”

Before Felder’s final curtain call, he excitedly shared he will debut the life of French composer Claude Debussy one year from now at The Wallis.

Hershey Felder’s Beethoven has been so well received, that it has been extended for one more week. Go see it before it closes on August 19, 2018.

Performance are Tuesday – Friday at 7:30pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm & 7:30pm. The closing matinee performance is Sunday, August 19 at 2pm. Single tickets: $35 – $105 (prices subject to change) Online – www.TheWallis.org/Beethoven (310)746-4000. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Bram Goldsmith Theater is located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210.