It’s another one-man show composed of two men. And “composed” is the operative word here. It’s Hershey Felder with another in his series of performances featuring iconic composers, conductors, and musicians. This time the “other man” is “Our Great Tchaikovsky” and Felder, seated at the piano, begins by playing works that Tchaikovsky began creating at the age of six.
Tchaikovsky’s parents were not enthralled. “Music is for girls,” they told him, and at the age of 10 they enrolled him in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence that would train him to become a successful civil servant. The school was 800 miles from his family and the enforced separation from his mother remained a traumatic memory for the rest of his life. She died when he was 14 and, playing sadly at the piano, he noted that “tears come out of my fingers.”
After graduating from the Imperial School at 19 he spent the required three years as a civil servant at the Ministry of Justice and then took classes at the newly founded Russian Musical Society and afterwards at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory, becoming a graduate of its first class.
He studied with composer Anton Rubinstein and his brother Nikolai, who were brutal in criticizing his First Concerto, demanding that it be altered. Tchaikovsky complied, but it was still not considered good enough to be performed, and so he had to wait several years for it to premiere, in its original form, ironically, in Boston, where it was greeted with enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, Nikolai Rubinstein offered him a position as Professor of Music Theory at the new Moscow Conservatory, which Tchaikovsky gladly accepted. But his compositions continued to receive criticism and Felder, in telling of these critiques, exhibits the fierce emotions that were so evident in Tchaikovsky’s temperament.
The problem was that Tchaikovsky had evolved an original musical style that combined both Russian and Western themes and though the critics didn’t like the results, the Russian audiences did. And so did the Americans, when he toured there. In fact, he was invited to preside over the first concert at the opening of New York’s Carnegie Hall.
All the triumphs that Felder reports, however, were colored by the sadness of Tchaikovsky’s personal life. As a homosexual he had several long-term love affairs with men and also a potential relationship with a Belgian soprano who fled when she was told that he was gay. Eventually he decided that it was in his best interest to find a wife, so at the age of 37 he married a former student, Antonina Miliukova. The marriage lasted little more than two months but she continued to press him for money and he continued to provide for her and the sons she subsequently bore out of wedlock.
At the same time, however, he began a correspondence with a wealthy widow who became his confidante and patron. Although they didn’t meet, she subsidized his work through a relationship that lasted for 13 years and thousands of letters.
The telling of the story of Tchaikovsky’s life, accompanied by the dramatic and emotional turmoil of his music and its warm familiarity, constitutes another personal triumph for Hershey Felder. His presentation is gripping and the entire evening is spellbinding.
Director Trevor Hay may be credited for the quality of the production, but major kudos must be included for Christopher Ash, who provides the lighting and projection design that is absolutely breathtaking. It provides the background for the music, projecting, in muted colors on a curtain that surrounds the stage, panoramas of 19th century couples at a dinner party, or dancing, or a ballerina twirling through Swan Lake, or the stately buildings of Moscow and St. Petersburg, or snow flakes softly dropping and whitening the tops of trees in the forest.
If, as Felder declares, Tchaikovsky’s aim was “to capture nature in sound” we must also credit Ash for “capturing nature in glorious silence.” And finally, as Felder tells the tale of Tchaikovsky’s death at 53 under mysterious circumstances, the evening ends not with a whimper but a bang.
“Our Great Tchaikovsky” can be seen at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2 and 7 through the matinee performance on August 13th.
For tickets call (310) 746-4000 or online at TheWallis.org/Felder.