Sunday, September 20, 2009

Beethoven, As I Knew Him

‘BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM’ hits most of the right notes at CPH

Last season Hershey Felder performed ‘MONSIEUR CHOPIN’ and ‘GEORGE GERSHWIN, ALONE’ to sold out houses at the Cleveland Play House. CPH decided to open this, its 95th consecutive season, with another of Felder’s creations, ‘BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM.’

Felder is a talented playwright, pianist, actor and singer. This time, rather than writing a script in which he portrays a well-known composer directly, he decided to use a more dramatic format. Portraying both Beethoven and a man whose father was a friend of the composer, Felder weaves a tale which exposes us to not only the life, but the very personality of the man who is considered one of the world’s greatest creators of music.

From ages 12 to fourteen, Gerhard von Breuning not only took piano lessons from the composer, but made sure that the great man ate. Beethoven, it appears, got so involved in feeding his need to create music that he forgot to feed his body. Felder’s script melds Von Breuning's personal recollections, recounts stories told by his father, and material published years after Beethoven's death.

We are exposed to Beethoven’s abusive father, difficult relationships with his brothers, failed romances, and the hearing loss that began in his late twenties which was, in part, responsible for his aggressive personality. We learn of Beethoven’s role in changing the course of western music and get a good dose of music history and theory.

Part concert, part lecture/demo and part dramatized play, the production works, on many levels, stumbles slightly on others.

While the ideas flow well, some of the specifics get lost due to a blend of Felder’s difficult to understand German accent, his not opening physically to the whole audience and a finicky sound system which squealed and muffled the spoken word. A combination of some questionable choices of recordings, which were not always of the highest quality, and the poor acoustics of the Bolton Theatre, caused some aesthetic problems.

Francois-Pierre Couture’s setting was both visually attractive and created a perfect mood. Using what appeared to be a large book on the rear of the stage, the ever changing pages, created through rear projections, were pen-and-ink drawings which visually explained creations of Beethoven’s mind, as well as pictures of real people who populated his life. Richard Norwood’s dim stage lighting design added to the somber mood.

I normally take my grandson Alex (one of the Kid Reviewers) to a production to evaluate whether he perceives the show to be kid friendly. In this case, however, I took him as my music evaluator. A talented pianist and award winning composer, the thirteen year old gave an over-all evaluation of 8 1/2 out of ten to the production. He said he gained a great deal of personal knowledge about Beethoven and thought that Felder’s piano playing was “really good.” However, he was aware that in Mozart’s “Requiem,” Felder came in late at the start of the piece, and “he made a couple of notation errors in other selections.” In addition, both he and I questioned why there was text tacked on after the natural ending of the production-- the playing of “The Ode to Joy” from the composer’s greatest masterpiece, “The Symphony No, 9 in D minor. “ Especially since this was Beethoven’s last complete work and was a symbolic summary of his life.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM,’ should please most audience members. Though not as engaging as either ‘MONSIEUR CHOPIN’ or ‘GEORGE GERSHWIN, ALONE,’ it is a great lesson in music history and a commendable evening of theatre.