By Quinn Rigg
A dream for music aficionados and theatre history buffs alike, Hershey Felder is one of the most dedicated, well-researched and well-accomplished composer/playwrights in the Western Hemisphere, famous for works both symphonic and theatrical.
From his first opera in 1997, to his critically-acclaimed solo performance series known as the Composers Sonata, to up and coming projects with the likes of Nathan Gunn or cello virtuoso Antonio Lysy, the irrepressible Felder has time and time again earned and affirmed his international acclaim.
In his most recent installment in the Composers Sonata series, Our Great Tchaikovsky, now playing at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, Felder takes to the stage alone as he tackles the complicated life of legendary Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
ChicagolandMusicalTheatre had the honor of speaking with Felder about his process as an artist, the influences, inspirations and motivations for his work, and, in the spirit of indulging pride in the community, his thoughts on our fair city and its theatrical influence.
CMT: How does it feel to be back with Our Great Tchaikovsky two years since last coming here—is there anything specifically that you miss about Chicago in particular?
HF: I miss everything about Chicago, I love it! It’s really my theatrical home, so to speak. The audiences are great, from the very beginning, the audience has always felt to me like they really want you to succeed—it’s one of the few towns that feels like that. Lots of towns in America feel very judgemental, but Chicago is something that—wonderful—feels like they really want you to— they cheer you on. It’s just lovely that way.
CMT: Are there any specific challenges that are presented to you from city to city, like traffic, weather, culture in general?
HF: Well first of all, Chicago is one of those unbelievably livable cities: it’s easy to get around, it’s not a problem to get around, the people are generous—they are lovely—the food is great, the entertainment is great… it’s kind of like a New York without dirt on the street, you know?
CMT: *laughter* Yes, it certainly is. You’re a very well-traveled performer and artist, is there any way that travel informs the creation of work, like any influences that you take from the places you visit?
HF: I think with an artist every experience that you have—wherever you are in the world—is something that must and should inform the work you do on the stage.
CMT: What compels you the most about the inner lives of these composers, in particular this most recent work, Tchaikovsky?
HF: Well in this case, it’s a very curious story, you know? Here he was, a closeted homosexual, and because of the way he lived, had to put everything into his music because he couldn’t speak it out loud, and we didn’t know these truths until recently. It’s very moving.
CMT: Your work gets so personal into the struggle of these composers, is there anything you find personally that’s frustrating in accessing that sensitivity or that vulnerability?
HF: Frustrating no, hard work, yes. I mean, you can’t get frustrated by the hard work you need to do, you just have to do the hard work, you know what I mean? What’s fulfilling? Sometimes, eating a good piece of cheesecake is fulfilling, other times it’s eating some good chicken wings, the other times it’s playing very well in front of the public.
CMT: So, in that vein, do you find performing to be fulfilling and sustaining to the soul in the way that food is to the body?
HF: Yes, that I can safely say that art is absolutely necessary. Without it, we’re not human and without it, I would feel bereft.
CMT: Next question: Is there any end goal in mind with these solo performances, like a specific composer that you plan to stop on, or is this just one of those series that you’re just gonna keep rolling with until you croak?
HF: *Laughing* Until I croak? No, hopefully I’ll croak a retired and comfortable man, back in my bed, happy… The last character of these musicians is next year, and it’s Claude Debussy, the French composer. Then I’ll be devoting my time to various other types of performances. But I thought with Debussy I will have said the most that I can say.
CMT: What was your first inspiration to beginning your first solo performance in this series?
HF: The truth is, I was inspired because I needed to pay rent.
CMT: *Laughter* Spoken like a true artist.
HF: Yep, you know, there’s the basics: I needed to pay rent
CMT: And did you find any particular difficulty at the beginning of this series in working out how to devise a piece, how to compose it, how to make it accessible to an audience?
HF: Well you know, it took me a lifetime to learn how to be intimate with an audience, from ten people to ten thousand people, having done both. You know, it’s something you have to learn how to do.
CMT: And by this point, given that you’ve gained so much more experience in learning how to be intimate and vulnerable with an audience, has the process of Our Great Tchaikovsky been any easier in any way?
HF: It’s never easy. It’s always hard, no matter what you do.
CMT: Hard in what way? What has been the challenge regarding Our Great Tchaikovsky that you’ve found the most exciting as an artist?
HF: Telling a story that’s complicated to tell and playing virtuosic piano music at the same time.
CMT: What resonates with you most about the story of Tchaikovsky?
HF: I think the humanity of the man, the notion that we all have our own struggles, and the notion that we all need to be treated fairly as we deal with them.
CMT: And coming now towards the end, with one composer left in this series, is there anything in reflection that you’ve found to be particularly enlightening regarding your experience with this project?
HF: Yes: discovering that I know that I’m not a genius. After dealing with these composers, you really begin to understand what genius is.
CMT: You’ve had over twenty-five years of a successful career — your first opera was Noah’s Ark, correct?
HF: Long time ago, yes.
CMT: And prior to that, is there any way you could’ve expected the success that you’ve experienced throughout your career?
HF: Expect, no. Being grateful, yes. I’m grateful each time something happens, I’m grateful that I can get up in the morning and actually do it. I’m grateful that people say, “okay what are you doing next, we’d like to hear you.” I know how lucky I am and I don’t take any of this for granted. I work very hard, but you know, working hard isn’t always something that gets you where you want to go unfortunately in this business, and I know how lucky I am.
CMT: Given that you’ve been so blessed with opportunity and with talent as an artist, did you think you were going to pursue theater and music, growing up?
HF: Yeah, from the time I was a kid, it’s nothing my parents thought of for me. I knew from the time I was little that it was something I really wanted to do.
CMT: Given that music is such a vital part of your history and your being, is there anything else that you tend to do in your free time, if you have free time?
HF: The latter part of your question makes sense, “if you have free time:” not much. In my free time I tend to sleep, that’s about it, and it’s not a lot of free time
CMT: *Laughter* Very fair. And given that you’re so busy and don’t tend to have much free time, just how many projects are you working on at a given time?
HF: Usually three or four.
Q: Wow—Is there anything that you’re working towards with being that busy? Is it for the love of the art, or stating some sort of message, or proving something to yourself in any way?
HF: It’s just what I do. It’s who I am, it’s what I do. I get up in the morning, I realize I’m still breathing, I say, “Okay, time to get to work.” It’s what I do, I don’t question it. It’s interesting, it’s one of the things I don’t think about. I don’t think of the bigger picture of “Oh, I’m going to be this,” or “I have to do that.” I am a working artist. I get up in the morning and I go to work.
And what fine work it is. Inspired, worldly, and relatable, Felder bursts with the creative vivacity of his artistic spirit, connecting to those around him as confidently and intently as he connects with his material. The Chicago theatre community is certainly glad to welcome him back to the stage.
Update on April 17: See our review of Felder’s production here.
Our Great Tchaikovsky is a limited engagement playing from April 11th to May 13th at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. More information and tickets may be found here.