When would-be patrons from Russia approached pianist and composer Hershey Felder about performing a musical biography of Peter Tchaikovsky in the Russian-born maestro's homeland, Felder turned them down flat. "If I told Tchaikovsky's story in Russia, I would be thrown in jail because of their anti-gay laws," Felder said.
Russia's ministry of culture officially and categorically denies that Tchaikovskythe man who brought the world lush, intricate works including The Nutcracker and Swan Lakewas gay. However, historians and the letters Tchaikovsky left behind tell a very different story. And while Felder won't be taking his one-man musical biography "Our Great Tchaikovsky" to Russia any time soon, the show opening April 11 will offer audiences here a window into the world of a musical wunderkind whose works continue to influence everything from movies ( Black Swan ) to Independence Day celebrations ( The 1812 Overture ).
Felder's performance is part concert, part biographyand is wholly unblinking in its depiction of both Tchaikovsky's demons and his genius. It's a format Felder excels at: His previous concert-biossonically exquisite and emotionally resonant takes on Gershwin, Chopin, Bernstein and Berlin, among themenjoyed critical acclaim and a healthy box office in Chicago.
But Felder has never before taken on a subject whose life was so largely defined by his secrets. Nor has he performed a piece that flat out defies an entire country's political regime.
Russia's minster of culture may have proclaimed Tchaikovsky straight, but as Felder notes: "That's contradicted by basically every single letter Tchaikovsky left behind."
"In shaping this piece, Tchaikovsky's sexuality was a driving force," Felder continued. "I'm not really dramatizing itit's very clear from his writing that being in the closet was an issue. So much of his music is about what he's hiding from. If you listen, you can hear so much anguish. And so much joy. And humor.
"Harmonically and melodically, the chords and the progressions pull at you. You can analyze and diagram the structure, but the magic of the whole thing is in how deeply it makes you feel. He is speaking to us through his music," Felder said.
Tchaikovsky's life ( 1840-1893 ) dovetailed with the rein of Emperor Alexander III, the penultimate ruler of Czarist Russia. ( His successor, Nicholas II, would be gunned down in the uprising of 1918. ) And while Tchaikovsky's life story is more than a century old, it retains an almost dismaying relevance.
After performing the show last year, Felder got a letter that spoke to the story's stark, contemporary terms.
"It was from a teacher who was gay," Felder recalled. "Grew up with conversion therapy and medication and all kind of 'treatments' to 'fix' her. She wrote about the young people she worked with, and the importance of helping them understand what came before them. Of showing people that you can't take things for granted.
"It seems like since the  election, a lot of people are starting to see how things they've taken for granted can be taken away," Felder continued. "I had one gay couple see the show in New York; they talked to me after ward about how three or four years ago, they felt completely safe walking through their neighborhood holding hands. Now? They don't hold hands in public so much any more. They are afraid. They are looking over their shoulders."
Tchaikovsky spent his life looking over his shoulder. His death, at 53, remains murky. Some say it was cholera; others say suicide.
Music is always at the heart of Felder's shows, whether he's blazing through Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue or Chopin's mournfully ear-wormy funeral dirge. Every once in a great while, he gets hate mail for his exploration of the lives behind the music.
Our Great Tchaikovsky features roughly an hour of music, including two symphonic movements, a piano concerto and portions of The Nutcracker Suite.
"The Russians are trying to erase his life at the same time they're calling him a hero," Felder said. "You can't erase his life. Anymore than you can erase his music."
Our Great Tchaikovsky runs April 11-May 13 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $55; call 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org .