Twenty years ago, Hershey Felder brought his patented and potent combination of actor, pianist and playwright to Los Angeles for the first time, performing in his one-man show as George Gershwin at the old Tiffany Theater on the Sunset Strip.
On July 26, Felder will return — this time to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills — in “Beethoven,” a portrait of the immortal German composer that may hold a few surprises even for longtime fans of Ludwig von Beethoven.
Felder will portray not only the title character but also Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Beethoven’s lifelong friend and physician, Stephan von Breuning.
During the last three years of Beethoven’s life, when his decades-long hearing loss deteriorated into complete deafness, Gerhard, then in his early teens, provided the musician with constant companionship.
Beethoven, who communicated mainly via written notes at this stage of his life, addressed his young companion affectionately as “Hosenknopf” or “trouser button.”
Like his father, Gerhard became a physician and, nearly 50 years after Beethoven’s death, published his personal recollections of his famous friend’s final years.
Felder found a rich source of information in Gerhard’s recollections, especially Beethoven’s final struggle against his deafness.
“It is a miracle that Beethoven composed his Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth symphonies, capped by the majestic Ninth, with its concluding ‘Ode to Joy,’ while he was completely deaf and never heard a note of his own music,” Felder said during a phone interview.
Onstage at the Wallis, Felder will perform selections from the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, as well as from the “Moonlight Sonata” and the “Pathetique Sonata.
“Beethoven crossed all boundaries,” Felder said. “You need only listen to the ‘Ode to Joy,’ with its declaration that ‘all men will become brothers,’ to realize his belief in humanity.”
During the past 25 years, Felder, 50, has assumed the personas of such disparate composers as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin, as well as Americans Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein and non-musician Abraham Lincoln.
Felder said he currently is developing the stage story of only one more composer — France’s Claude Debussy — and will then concentrate on other projects, including adding to the list of his own compositions, which include the concerto “Aliyah,” the opera “Noah’s Ark” and a compilation of “Love Songs for the Yiddish Theatre.”
“Beethoven crossed all boundaries. You need only listen to the ‘Ode to Joy,’ with its declaration that ‘all men will become brothers,’ to realize his belief in humanity.”
— Hershey Felder
Born in Montreal, Canada, it was Los Angeles, however, that served as the launching pad for Felder’s one-man shows. It was also here that he met his wife, Kim Campbell, a former Canadian prime minister, while she was serving as her country’s consul general.
In 1994, Felder also worked briefly for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, interviewing Holocaust survivors for the foundation’s oral history program.
Hershey, the son of Holocaust survivors, and raised in a Yiddish-speaking family, when asked if his interpretation of Beethoven has a “Jewish angle,” Felder quipped, “Of course, because I play him.”
“Beethoven,” directed by Joel Zwick, runs from July 26 to Aug. 19 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. For tickets and other information, call (310) 746-4000 or visit TheWallis.org/Beethoven.