When looking at the life of the great composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, there are many stories to be told.
One is of the man and influences that inspired decadent concertos and delicious ballets such as “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” a man who wields a composition pen loaded with warmth, calm and seducing power.
And the other is the man with demons, one whose music was not enough for him to shake away, as he says, “his devices.” The love and longing for a man shrouded in horrendous marriages with women and attempts to take his own life informed the other side of this masterful composer.
In the absolutely exquisite and mesmerizing production of “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, virtuoso musician Hershey Felder takes on the life of Tchaikovsky and tells both stories, because he is in a country where he can.
That is not the case in Russia, mind you. In 2013, when Felder was invited to perform his show in Moscow to tell the story of the life of Tchaikovsky, Felder knew that there was only one story he was allowed to tell – the story of his music.
But Felder also mentioned that because there is still so much unanswered about Tchaikovsky’s life, what teaches us about that life IS his music. How can those two ideas, the life and the music, be separated?
Well frankly, it’s impossible. The crux of these laws in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia not only disallows same sex public affection and pride parades, but disallows merely sharing information about the LGBTQ community, which is against the law.
Needless to say, Felder found the kickoff of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics dripping with irony, showcasing Tchaikovsky’s stunning “Swan Lake” in the opening ceremonies.
So much of this duality runs through the piece, a pathos-driven examination of such an accomplished yet tortured life. You can hear it in so much of Tchaikovsky’s work in the form of a lonely cello, an isolated oboe, and moments of levity fueled with unflinching sorrow. That sorrow and loss followed him throughout his life – from losing his mother to cholera when he was a boy to the passing of close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubenstein, Tchaikovsky was no stranger to pain.
Take the humorous story of Tchaikovsky’s pathetically ineffective suicide, an attempt at hypothermia which could not even render a simple cold. Or maybe his truest relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, a great patron of the arts who funded him for 13 years before cutting everything off in one fell swoop, supposedly to protect his secret. Add in the blackmail attempts with those closest to him, threatening to blow his cover as a gay man and ruin everything he built in music.
Because this show is one person, there are no major symphonies being played, save for the second movement of Symphony number four in the background of a scene. This does not hinder the play in any way. Felder is intoxicating as a pianist, and it is thrilling to watch the total artistry of his every motion. He does not push the keys as much as he glides over them, hands darting and dipping in the smoothest of ways which becomes sublimely seductive, slyly turning the page of his songbook with silk in his fingertips. Each number chosen is given fascinating backstory and context, so you are not simply listening to a song you’ve heard many times over. Now it is experienced in such a fresh way, you feel that Tchaikovsky is in the room, speaking through Felder’s interpretation.
The aesthetics of the piece are just as grand. The scenic design, also by Felder, is full of great touches worthy of a composition maestro, anchored by a beautiful Steinway and Sons grand piano. The projections designed by Christopher Ash are loaded with images that create a magnificent, macabre illumination on vast upstage walls, as well as picture in a frame that changes constantly. And Trevor Hay as director moves the piece, all 95 minutes of it, deftly through space.
I would never pretend that I know a ton about classical music in general and Tchaikovsky specifically. I will say that he has always been one of my favorite composers. And the thing this show does is simple – it makes you feel. You feel angry to think of the persecution of the community that still lives with pain and cruelty from this harmful current regime. You feel sympathy for a man who could not reconcile the beauty of his music with a life filled with hurt. And you feel alive when the opening notes of a nocturne, a sonata or a suite first enter your ears like a taste of decadent chocolate on the tongue.
While this is my first experience with Hershey Felder, it did not take me long to realize that this special talent has all the grace of a swan cascading through a majestic blue lake.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Our Great Tchaikovsky”
Written and Performed by Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay
The Word: Mesmerizing from the first word, the virtuosity of Hershey Felder informs this fluid and fascinating piece of the life of one of the world’s greatest and tortured composers.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Feb. 11th
Mountain View Center For Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA
Running Time: One hour, 35 minutes with no intermission
Tickets range from $45 – $105
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org