Beethoven and his Women illuminates the composer's chronic pain and loneliness 

Actor's Theatre of South Carolina and Chamber Music Charleston put on a memorable show

Saturday evening's Piccolo Spotlight event at Circular Congregational Church, Beethoven and his Women, added a fresh dramatic dimension to the fateful factors that lay beneath the revered composer's often wretched and lonely existence. The story was told in both monologue and music, courtesy of distinguished actor Clarence Felder and the dependable musicians of Chamber Music Charleston.

You never know how such drama-cum-music projects are going to turn out. But similar efforts from Chamber music Charleston in recent seasons have gone well in the past, and so I went into this one with high expectations. And I wasn't disappointed.

The program revolved around Felder's portrayal of the composer in his later years, as he reminisces about the most tragic turn in his life, and how that led to both his reputation as a curmudgeonly misanthrope as well as his romantic misfortunes. We're talking about the gradual and agonizing loss of hearing that left him profoundly deaf: perhaps the music world's most miserably ironic story. A composer who can't hear? He ended up walling off his helpless grief and outrage from the world around him — costing him any chance at the marriage that he yearned for.

Felder based his portrayal on scholarly research into Beethoven's life and letters: too extensive to recount here. The scene is Vienna, circa 1820. We heard of the composer's lesser affairs, as well as his life's "immortal beloved," Antonie Brentano, an unhappily married woman who loved Beethoven just as hard in return. But, aside from inferred dalliances, no official relationship ever materialized.

Thanks to Chamber Music Charleston, our outstanding year-round source of local chamber music, we heard some of Beethoven's finest creations: his wonderful Piano Trio in B-flat, the "Archduke," as well as the luminous first movement to his wonderful "Moonlight" sonata. Felder's dramatizations fell between movements. Our excellent performers were violinist Megan Allison, cellist Timothy O'Malley and pianist Irina Pevzner. They played beautifully, though the church's acoustics tend to swallow up string sonorities, making the piano sound overly loud in a few spots. But you could still hear everybody.

Felder's climactic moment came when he staggered to the piano as Irina rendered her sonata movement. He laid his hands — and then his ear — to the instrument, as if trying to capture the music's physical vibrations: the only means of perception left to him. Then he lurched back to his chair, weeping uncontrollably. And the tears I saw on his cheeks were real ones.

It's one thing when you read about these facts and stories in a good biography (as I have), but it's quite a different matter when a truly emotive and accomplished actor portrays them in person. This one will haunt me for awhile yet — and my personal image of Beethoven is forever altered. Good work.

You can catch the repeat performance tonight; same time and place. Don't miss it.

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