Inside the dark, empty Geffen Theater, a diminutive figure onstage holds court with a Steinway concert grand piano, speaking in a German accent to an imaginary audience. A voice from the front row interrupts him. "We need to get back to the music before now!" The pianist smiles, brushes back his tousled, shoulder length hair and breaks into a few bars of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
Pianist/actor Hershey Felder is hard at work with his director, Joel Zwick, on the final chapter of an ambitious composition more than a decade in the making: his "Composer's Sonata." For this trilogy of one-man shows, the maestro brings to life three titans of classical music – Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and George Gershwin – by donning period costumes, wigs, and even accents.
He is currently performing "Gershwin Alone," here at the Geffen Theater and will present "Monsieur Chopin" in August. Felder plans to première the final movement, "Beethoven, As I Knew Him," in San Diego next year.
Each of the movements in "Sonata" consists of nearly nonstop music wrapped around a dramatic narrative.
"Gershwin" recounts a life of triumph and heartache, most notably the failure of what the composer hoped would be a "new, American opera," "Porgy and Bess." The evening climaxes with a virtuosic performance of "Rhapsody in Blue," then winds down with a round of audience participation.
"Chopin," on the other hand, offers what might have been an afternoon piano lesson from the Polish teacher, moving through many of the famous waltzes, preludes, and polonaises, including the "Militaire" and "Heroique."
For "Beethoven," he tackles a number of the "chestnut" works, such as the "Moonlight" and "Pathetique" sonatas, while exploring the man's many professional and personal challenges.
Throughout all three works, Felder plays and profiles each composer's best-known work. That's what the audience expects. But more important, he says, the classic playlist is the best avenue into the hearts and souls of these composers.
With that he launches into a performance of the "Pathetique" sonata, talking as he plays. "Beethoven didn't name his pieces," he says, "with the exception of this one. He was going deaf as he composed it. This is his anguish over that loss."
The Canadian-born musician/author first workshopped the Gershwin show in Los Angeles in 1999 and has since performed both Gershwin and Chopin all over the world. His goal is simple. "The audience for what we call classical music is dwindling," Felder says. He dons a blazer against the cool of the empty theater as he settles into a theater seat.
"More and more, piano is either something we put in a pit or play as keyboards, and it is music I love," he says. "I realized something must be done to communicate this music to audiences."
With his double-threat training in theater and piano, Felder says he couldn't settle on one or the other as a career. He is doing both. "I felt that I was a storyteller and could use both skills," he says. He is targeting what he calls the narrowing of classical music. "This music has a story and emotional life that is being lost."
The emotional communication from composer to audience is being obscured by the modern obsession with recording quality and note-perfect performances, he continues. "That's not the way this music was played when it began." With that he returns to the piano and begins to spin a Chopin waltz as he speaks. "It was created and performed in salons and intimate settings in which there was real communication between the composer and the audience." Felder's bold theatricalizations aim to restore that connection.
"There's nobody else I know of in the theater or music world who could bring this music to life," says Zwick, who has worked with Felder from the start. "Hershey has such a unique skill set, you'd have to look back in history to even find a near comparison."
Zwick points to the musical entertainers of the mid-20th century, such as Victor Borge or even Liberace, both of whom were accomplished musicians who used their love of classical music to entertain. But, adds the director who has worked on Broadway and in film ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), those comparisons sell this trilogy short. "This is drama, with real theatrical writing and performances, something those men didn't attempt. Really, what Hershey is doing is unique."
Felder plans to take the trilogy on the road after it is complete next year. But he doesn't plan to perform these men forever, he says as he moves into the meditative second movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" sonata. He has his own musical stories to tell. "I want to compose," he says.