Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
“BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM” – Old Globe Theatre
AIRDATE: MAY 16, 2008
It’s been a banner year for Beethoven in our big theaters. Two premieres, two perspectives. Ludwig must be loving it. First, it was “33 Variations” at La Jolla Playhouse. Now, it’s “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” at the Old Globe. This world premiere is the final installment of a trilogy of solo works about famous composers. Creator-performer Hershey Felder calls it his “Composer Sonata.” Last year, he brought “George Gershwin Al one” and “Monsieur Chopin” to the Globe, and he’ll be reprising those next month. But now, his primary focus is Beethoven.
Felder has a quartet of talents: he writes, acts, sings, and plays piano. So his composer-plays give him the opportunity to showcase all his skills, some better developed than others.
In his first two productions, he inhabited the character of his subject, to enchanting or amusing effect. This time, though, the story is told through someone else’s eyes. The narrative is based on an 1870 memoir by Vienna physician Gerhard von Breuning , a neighbor of Beethoven’s whose father was his childhood friend. The story begins 40 years after the great composer’s death, and goes back to the time when von Breuning was a young boy, when he first met the man who looked like a vagrant and became the student of the maestro during the last two years of his life.
Unfortunately, van Breuning isn’t a very interesting character. And his story is unremittingly dark and dour. The third-person presentation is distancing; we’d be better off taking Beethoven’s harrowing journey with him, through his poverty, deafness, madness and genius. The most revelatory part of von Breuning’s tale is intimating that Beethoven’s abusive brother contributed to the composer’s death at age 57. Medical reports have suggested a long-term case of lead poisoning, but this version is more provocative, if possibly apocryphal.
During the intermissionless evening, Beethoven’s luminous creations speak for themselves, sometimes in ethereal recordings, sometimes in Felder’s brief but expendable singing, mostly in his playing, of the “Moonlight Sonata,” “ Für Elise” and other ‘greatest hits.’ The music isn’t brilliantly integrated into the piece as it was in Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations.” And though it’s painful to say, there’s just too much of it. Huge chunks of piano-playing, however emotional, tend to stop the story in its tracks.
There’s really no dramatic tension, and the piece comes off as a gloomy lecture and piano recital, punctuated by a few moments of passion, when Felder finally becomes the composer. Looming above is a huge tome with a stylized bookmark. Projected on those empty pages are abstract sketches of people and places in Vienna , which do little to advance the story and sometimes even distract. Overall, it’s a lengthy 100 minutes. Beethoven’s life has all the elements of high drama, but not in this telling.
“Beethoven As I Knew Him” runs through June 8 the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park
©2008 PAT LAUNER