Part concert, part lecture/demo and part — a small part — dramatized play, Hershey Felder’s “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” makes up in passion what it may lack in warmth. Sitting more comfortably on the Geffen main stage than in its Old Globe debut in May, show offers the musicophile (especially the initiate) a healthy assortment of some of the greatest orchestral and piano works of all time, along with a serving of music appreciation and a dollop of insight into genius. However you look at it, that’s a pretty good deal.
Felder only briefly impersonates the great man himself, in contrast with the all-Gershwin and all-Chopin installments of his “Composer Sonata” trilogy. Yet “Beethoven” is liveliest in his reenactment of the composer’s distracted mutterings and wild-eyed hissy fits, tempered by a tender appreciation of decades of hearing loss.
The resulting despair, we’re led to understand, turned a basically benevolent fellow “malevolent, stubborn and misanthropic.” When Beethoven ends his apologetic valedictory message to his heirs with the plaintive “Please do not forget me,” a crazy-genius type becomes endowed with flesh and blood.
Elsewhere, Felder waltzes through the composer’s mini-biography in the austere, German-accented persona of Dr. Gerhard von Breuning, author of an 1870 memoir on which the text is based. Son of Beethoven’s best (only?) childhood friend, the adolescent Breuning was hardly a longtime intimate, but he did bear witness to key moments in the composer’s declining years, adding to the portrait’s poignancy.
Breuning proves more device than character, and not the most spontaneous device at that. His timing, reactions and punchlines seem to have been worked out long in advance, endowing the performance with a certain claustrophobic quality.
Although show begins with his singing, at length, the German lyrics to the “Ode to Joy,” Breuning is much more Herr Professor than mein host, not the greatest contrast with his stern subject.
The music is king here, a goodly portion of show’s intermissionless 90 minutes given over to live piano performance or orchestral pre-recording. And as Breuning/Felder trenchantly analyzes the structure and meaning of the ominous Fifth Symphony, or points out “the push and pull of good and evil” in the Sonate Pathetique, the evening more than justifies its academic tone.
Show receives the elegant, fastidious production typical of a Felder attraction, with designer Francois-Pierre Couture adding additional commentary through a series of delicate pen-and-ink projections. As Felder plays the Moonlight Sonata, a soft-focus cameo of the Countess to whom the piece is dedicated comes to life, lending credence to Breuning’s rueful opinion that the women in Beethoven’s life were mere creations of his mind.
Richard Norwood’s lighting effects are as dramatic as the music itself, becoming full and welcoming during Breuning’s narration as if the house lights were coming up. If only the man seemed to be talking to us, not at us, the welcome would be complete.