Throughout the 60s, Leonard Bernstein’s televised “Young People’s Concerts” brought kids of all ages to a deeper appreciation of great music and those who made it. Hershey Felder’s “Composer Sonata” trilogy, of which “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” is the final installment to premiere, offers a respectful, Bernsteinian biographical sketch and exegeses of prominent compositions “for dummies” as it were, with Felder as both thesp and teacher. “Beethoven” is stimulating as a visually-embellished lecture-demo at the Old Globe, though as a play it leaves one wanting more character and depth.
Titular “I” is Gerhard von Breuning, upon whose 1870 memoir scribe Felder relied. The extent of his “knowing” Beethoven was the composer’s final two years when Breuning was a piano student nicknamed hosenkopf (trouser-button, meaning sticking closely), so clearly the boy didn’t bear witness to the career’s heights. Still, as a lens through which we can view the great man in his final agonies, the Breuning device works well enough.
Reports on Beethoven’s messy domestic and familial situation aren’t especially revelatory of the music, though they do bring the genius down to earth. Breuning is poignant on the deafness, which evidently opened a creative door but at the price of unimaginable terror and, later, unrelieved crankiness. (Felder slips into the Beethoven role from time to time with glowering force.)
Things are at their most absorbing, no surprise, in discourse on the music. We’re taken through the Fifth Symphony from its famous Fate-knocks motif (“in those four notes, the universe”) through the composer “talking to us, telling us secrets only God knows, only Beethoven can hear.”
All that aside, as long as Felder was going to bring Bruening onto the stage, he might have created a character for him. The fellow possesses bottomless awe and a thick (too thick, and distracting) German accent, but one yearns for some humor or anger, some realization or attitude change to mark time’s passage and bring the static proceedings closer to the realm of drama.
Felder’s acting priorities do not encompass detailed revelation. Surely a man with such veneration as to preserve portions of his idol’s skull would be moved by contact with any relics, but the very first manuscript (age 11!) is treated merely as sheet music to be played and put away. There’s no horror expressed when, playing louder and louder, young Gerhard first realizes the composer’s deafness. It’s just an interesting anecdote, uninvested with emotionality.
The music, of course, reeks with emotion, whether played live on the grand piano or engineered by Erik Carstensen so that orchestral excerpts waft into the auditorium in an impressively ethereal way. But this isn’t a concert per se, and we expect to be moved by sources other than the music alone.
While helmer Joel Zwick might have pushed his actor/writer to find more emotional coloration and a character through-line, he has marshalled an impressive physical production from his design team. Richard Norwood’s complex, delicate light patterns, revealing and obscuring the few elegant furniture pieces of Francois-Pierre Couture’s polished black box set, act as a lovely metaphor for the mere glimpses into Beethoven’s titanic genius we mortals are permitted.
Couture provides a giant blank sketchbook as backdrop, on which ghostly white-on-black, pen-and-ink projections evoke the composer’s memories and musical influences to complement the playing.
Felder is very good on the What and How of Beethoven’s compositional revolution and greatest hits. (One can travel a few miles up the road to La Jolla and Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations” for more insight into the Why.) But at the end of the Old Globe presentation, both the great man and his devotee remain as remote as ever.