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Lend me an ear in praise of ‘Beethoven’

Hershey Felder stars in "Beethoven: As I Knew Him."

Hershey Felder stars in "Beethoven: As I Knew Him."

Members of the MTV generation will be calling Arizona Theatre Company’s new production “Beethoven Unplugged,” even though the official title is “Beethoven, As I Knew Him.”

Written and performed as a one-man show by actor/concert pianist Hershey Felder, the musical selections emphasize the composer’s genius for power ballads. Not to mix too many music metaphors here, but Beethoven is best known for composing magnificent symphonies.

Felder has pared away all the tuxedoed pomp of a proper European concert hall, the imposing sight of 80 musicians playing all sizes of bowed instruments, and replaced them with . . . himself and a grand piano in a simple setting with a few pieces of studio furniture. Behind him is a backdrop resembling a story book. From time to time, illustrations that look like etchings are projected on the larger-than-lifesize pages.

Everything is black, with minimal stage lighting, which adds a certain formality to the atmosphere. The playwright does enhance the scene with some recorded orchestral excerpts in a sound design by Erik Carstensen. Unfortunately the theater’s sound system wasn’t equal to the challenge. There was no rich resonance to this recording. It came out thin, with distortion around the edges.

The ideal setting would be Felder with a full symphony orchestra. As an instrument for humanizing the great artist, “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” works its magic. Just like you can hear the tunes better in those “Unplugged” TV programs, Felder brings out the angelic moments in Beethoven’s music.

Instead of soaring through the heavens on the wings of 30 violins, Felder draws us past the Pearly Gates and into God’s own darkened living room where Beethoven has been playing every evening for a couple of hundred years.

Do they serve after-dinner drinks in Heaven? If they do, this would be the perfect place.

For narration, Felder has drawn on the writing of Dr. Gerhard von Breuning, whose father was one of Beethoven’s most loyal friends. Gerhard was 12 years old when he first met the composer. For the next couple of years he would spend time with Beethoven nearly every day.

His stories become Felder’s stories, told with a pronounced German accent. Always understanding what he’s saying isn’t easy. This does detract from the performance, though it doesn’t get in the way of the music. Still, a simpler accent would be appreciated.

We do get that Beethoven lived a difficult, unhappy life and was a terrible housekeeper. As a boy he was abused by his father. The composer’s cruel deafness in later life could have been caused by those childhood times when the father beat his son about the head.

“Beethoven, As I Knew Him” is presented without an intermission, running nearly two hours. Felder adds a coda, as he calls it, stepping away from the piano to answer questions from the audience.

So, dream up a good question during the performance and be one of the first to get called on afterward, just to get the audience participation started. On opening night it took Felder awhile before the questions were flowing.

My favorite question from the audience: “If Mozart had lived longer, how would his presence have affected Beethoven’s composing?”



What: Arizona Theatre Company presents “Beethoven, As I Knew Him,” written and performed by Hershey Felder

When: various times Tuesdays through Sundays through April 27

Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

Price: $31-$54

Info: 622-2823, aztheatreco.org

Hershey Felder will appear as himself in a special six-performance concert series April 30-May 3 in the Temple of Music and Art, presenting “The American Songbook Sing-Along.” For details, aztheatreco.org.

Grade: B

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