Beethoven, As I Knew Him
When Hershey Felder’s solo event George Gershwin Alone played at the Geffen Playhouse last summer, it was the second of the actor/scholar/pianist’s “Composer Sonata Trilogy in Three Movements” to play there, proving the imaginative mind of Felder and the accommodating theatrical visionaries running the Playhouse these days are a perfect match. From the size of the recently remodeled venue, to the world-class acoustical attributes put in place at that time, to the space’s unique mix of warm intimacy combined with a properly academic air of artistic austerity, one can only hope there are more famous composers whose lives this guy wants to research and present to us all in intimate detail.
The Gershwin evening, which began right here in LA in 1999 and toured throughout the world after that original lengthy stay here at the 99-seat Tiffany on Sunset, had spawned that second part of the trilogy to debut at the Geffen, Monsieur Chopin, and seeing Felder the actor master playing both of these two great musical whiz kids, as well as using his scholarly skills to explain their lives and techniques while periodically exhibiting his own virtuoso performance skills at the piano, was a truly remarkable experience for anyone lucky enough to experience it.
Beautifully staged and directed by his longtime collaborator Joel Zwick, Felder’s concluding piece to his Composer Sonata puzzle has come home to the Geffen stage once again and the newest effort, Beethoven, As I Knew Him, further solidifies the creator’s unique place in the history of theatrical risk taking. Unlike Gershwin Alone, however, Felder’s exploration into the resounding tocks that made ol’ Ludwig Von tick only covers the last two unhappy years of his life—and then as noted in Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus, the 1870 memoir by Dr. Gerhard Von Breuning, son of the composer’s lifelong best friend, who had the distinct privilege of musical mentorship by Beethoven himself as a boy of 12, a relationship that proved as profound as one might expect.
Also unlike the other two pieces, Felder here takes on the persona of Beethoven only peripherally, spending more time assuming the character of Von Breuning as he meets and bonds with the miserably crotchety old master already in the throes of the horrifying deafness which so cruelly tormented and haunted his later years. Still, Felder manages to brilliantly reveal so much about the elusive man and how Beethoven somehow continued to create his complicated, emotionally rich enduring musical scores despite being able to hear them himself, all the while noting that the creation of great art is, if nothing else, one of the most mysterious parts of our fragile existences on this planet.
Luckily, as with his other pieces, Felder ends the performance by bringing his audience into the process with him, eruditely and succinctly answering questions from the house he insists are to have no boundaries, thus making the evening even more special as he confirms why he was once ensconced as a scholar in residence at Harvard’s School of Music. That section alone is more than worth the price of admission to Beethoven, As I Knew Him, but than again, if you’re there, you’ve already been well satiated by Hershey Felder’s artistry both as an actor and, even more spectacularly, as a knockout classical musician able to bring the sense of a gigantic concert hall to the Geffen stage as he performs the most magnificent and emotionally affecting compositions of one of the most important musical geniuses of all time.
Beethoven, As I Knew Him plays through Sept. 28 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave, Westwood; for tickets, call 310.208.5454. For more information, visit www.geffenplayhouse.com