As much as we may admire the creations of artists, it is often the life behind the work that is the most compelling — we’ll never tire of knowing what makes an artist tick. For years, musician and performer Hershey Felder has been offering insight into such musical legends as Beethoven and Bernstein, men whose lives weren’t perfect, but whose work often was. “Our Great Tchaikovsky” — Felder’s look at the Russian composer — makes its Midwest premiere at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre April 11.
Whether delving into the life and career of Chopin or Irving Berlin, Felder digs deep to create his shows, in which he portrays his subjects while playing their work on the piano. “To create a cohesive story, the research needs to be exhaustive,” he says. “One then chooses the elements that will give a picture of who the man may have been in his time. There is also the investigation of the music, and choosing that is a challenge so that the story resonates in the context of it. It takes several years to figure it out.”
Tchaikovsky was mad for music from an early age. He took his first piano lesson at five and his work was performed publicly for the first time in 1865, around the time he graduated from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He went on to compose more than 150 pieces, from symphonies, ballets and operas to cantatas and string quartets. Popular in the U.S. as well as in Europe, he conducted his “Coronation March” at the christening of Carnegie Hall in 1891.
While music forms the foundation of Felder’s productions, personality plays a key role. In the case of Tchaikovsky, he addresses the artist’s homosexuality — how he negotiated it in his time and how the gay community fares in Russia today. “Once the story of the music itself becomes clear, there has to be an interesting story about the creation of the music within the context of the lives of these great composer-artists,” Felder says. “Thankfully, great music tends to go hand in hand with a great and interesting life.”
‘Our Great Tchaikovsky’
April 11-May 13, Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For tickets ($55), visit Steppenwolf.org