Citizen Staff Writer
Variation on a theme
Beethoven won’t be rolling over, but he will be portrayed in sort of a buddy-movie setting with Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Beethoven, As I Knew Him,” written and performed as a one-man/one-piano show by Hershey Felder.
This completes Felder’s triumvirate of stage works based on pivotal composers. He began with George Gershwin, then continued with Frédéric Chopin. Both works have been presented by ATC, as well.
The familiar Beethoven biography of greatness followed by deafness receives an oblique treatment as Felder tells the story through the eyes of Gerhard von Breuning 43 years after the German composer’s passing. Von Breuning is remembering how he was the lad at Beethoven’s side for much of the last two years of the man’s life. It was von Breuning’s father who was Beethoven’s friend. The boy grew up to be a physician. Now he looks back on his youth spent with his father in the company of such a musical genius.
“As musicians we know these stories about the famous figures in music history. Von Breuning would have been 12 to 14 years old when he knew Beethoven, a young man who is completely enamored of the great man,” Felder says, on the phone and freshly arrived in the United States from Paris.
“Being so young, he could say things about Beethoven that no one who is older would say. That’s what I liked about this relationship. It gave me more freedom as a writer and also made it more like a buddy movie.”
There being few accomplished actors who are also accomplished concert pianists, Felder doesn’t expect there will be many productions of these works except his own. To date he has performed “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” with extended runs in Los Angeles and San Diego. ATC will add Tucson and Phoenix to the itinerary.
As the playwright for this unique series, Felder says by now the work has become faster to create, but not easier.
“I’ve learned a lot of things that I know will never work (in this particular type of show). That means I don’t have to try those anymore. But each play is different so I’m always looking for things that will work. That is always hard,” Felder says.
One thing that does work is to write the script first, then let the script dictate which music to select. Felder emphasizes that what is most important is being able to strike the right balance between the person and the music.
“You do have to include some of the greatest hits; that’s a given,” Felder says. “But some familiar pieces just won’t fit into this setting, while others may be too complicated to be effective.”
“Beethoven, As I Knew Him” is a stage play, not a concert. Felder plays Beethoven, and the boy. He also portrays the boy after he’s grown, telling additional stories about the composer. So the music comes in shorter bursts, so to speak, serving more as mileposts of artistic achievement.
Included on the song list is the “Moonlight Sonata,” “The Pathetique Sonata,” selections from Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies, and a movement of the “Emperor Concerto.”
“We start with the first thing he wrote, then go to the familiar works, then include some less familiar,” Felder says.
He says that after each performance people will ask why he didn’t include this piece or that one, selections that are more obscure.
“On the obscure pieces,” he begins, a smile in his voice, “it is important to remember, after 200 years of history, there are probably good reasons why those obscure pieces are still obscure.”
IF YOU GO
What: Arizona Theatre Company presents “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” by Hershey Felder
When: 7:30 p.m. preview Thursday, opening 7:30 p.m. Friday, continuing at various times (including several matinee performances) Tuesdays through Sundays through April 27
Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
Info: 622-2823, aztheatreco.org