Tchaikovsky is probably the best-known composer in the world. Even if people can’t name the movement or symphony they’ll recognize the tune; I still can’t hear ‘Danse des mirlitons’ without thinking of my grandfather singing along to the Cadbury Fruit & Nut advert. Probably not what Tchaikovsky had in mind when he wrote The Nutcracker, but thanks to Hershey Felder and Our Great Tchaikovsky we get a far greater understanding of what he was thinking.
It’s billed as a “play with music”, I would call it “music with a story”. Using Tchaikovsky’s own words, pieced together from thousands of letters he had written, Felder weaves a fascinating tapestry of a deeply troubled, albeit talented life. It was all new to me, I had been completely unaware of the life Tchaikovsky led, of his sexual proclivities, or his mysterious death. There’s a definite political slant as well, Felder points out on several occasions that the current attitude to homosexuality in Russia isn’t that much different to when Tchaikovsky lived in fear of being exposed.
The storytelling alone is enough to make this a thoroughly enjoyable performance piece, but Hershey Felder goes a step further. Sitting comfortably at his Steinway & Sons Grand Piano, he breathes new life into the classical pieces. The movement of his fingers is hypnotic and as the familiar refrains of the 1812 Overture and Swan Lake wash over you, you can feel your whole-body relaxing, it feels like the equivalent of a massage for the soul.
Hershey Felder is a word renowned pianist in his own right, so as soon as he starts playing, the story almost automatically takes an undeserved back seat. But, Felder still manages to bring Tchaikovsky to life with a witty and often touching repertoire of anecdotes. Yes, there is more he could have included, more drama that could have been infused, but this is a trade-off, because what we do get is compelling storytelling set to the music behind that very story.
Felder is alone on stage throughout, there’s old looking furniture, candles and the piano, of course. This attractive staging helps add to the ambiance; the backdrop is like a giant three-dimensional oil painting, always changing to add the right context to the setting, while the portrait hanging above his desk also changes dependent on the subject of conversation, it all has a very magical feel to it. The lighting from Christopher Ash gives the whole piece a warm and inviting feel, you feel drawn in to the story at every turn.
Our Great Tchaikovsky may not immediately appeal to every theatre-goer, because unless you’re already a Tchaikovsky fan, it’s only when you begin to hear Hershey Felder play and speak (often at the same time) that you really get an understanding of what this production is about. Interesting, moving and filled with wonderful piano playing, Our Great Tchaikovsky has a great deal to be enjoyed.