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Review: Hershey Felder channels the angel of all pianists, Chopin, in another mesmerizing musical portrait at Berkeley Rep, through August 10, 2014

At Berkeley Rep, award-winning actor and musician Hershey Felder stars in “Monsieur Chopin,” a passionate portrayal of the Polish pianist and composer, Fryderyk Chopin.  Felder invites the audience into Chopin’s lush salon for a magical music lesson as he tells his tragic life story, punctuated by over a dozen lyrical polonaises, mazurkas, valses, nocturnes and preludes. Photo:  John Zich

At Berkeley Rep, award-winning actor and musician Hershey Felder stars in “Monsieur Chopin,” a passionate portrayal of the Polish pianist and composer, Fryderyk Chopin. Felder invites the audience into Chopin’s lush salon for a magical music lesson as he tells his tragic life story, punctuated by over a dozen lyrical polonaises, mazurkas, valses, nocturnes and preludes. Photo: John Zich

Cherish the moment.  It’s Paris, March 1848, just after the February 1848 Revolution, and Hershey Felder as Polish composer/pianist, Fryderyk Chopin, welcomes you into his elegant Paris salon for an unusual piano lesson—one where he does all the playing.   It seems like he is making up the music as he goes, and what beautiful music it is—full of delicate dynamics, soft tempo fluctuations, imaginative color and touch—utterly different from any previously existing in the 19th century.  Throughout the lesson, he recounts his life story, from his first composition written at age 7 in his Polish hometown of Zelazowa Wola, to his complicated romance in France with the female French novelist, George Sand, to his death at age 39 from tuberculosis, to his heart’s famous burial in Poland.  Hypersensitive Chopin’s story is no sweet melody but his pain and losses and moments of epiphany are punctuated with actual shifts in the tone of Chopin’s music.

Monsieur Chopin, which opened Sunday, is Berkeley Rep’s latest collaboration with Hershey Felder, who is proving his genius for bringing famous composers to life.   Monsieur Chopin, which Felder both wrote and stars in, is directed by Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time) and arrives at Berkeley Rep on the heels of Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (June, 2014) and George Gershwin Alone (June 2013).  Monsieur Chopin is part of Felder’s series of musical enactments, “The Composers Sonata” which have been presented at dozens of theatres across the U.S. and around the world.  The series also includes Beethoven, As I Knew Him (2008) and Hershey Felder as Franz Liszt in Rock Star (2013).  As director, Mr. Felder premiered Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in April 2012 and the musical biography delighted Berkeley Rep audiences in December 2013 and is now immensely popular in New York.

“Fryderyk Chopin, the diminutive ‘Polish Poet of the Piano’ who died at the tender age of 39 and who spent much of his adult life as the prince of the Parisian salon, took an instrument of wood, felt, and metal and made it sing,” remarks Felder. “Chopin said, ‘If one wants to learn how to really play the piano, one must listen to the best opera singers – they will show you what you need to know.’ And for almost two centuries every pianist who has ever touched the instrument strives to bring it to life by making the piano human, by giving it ‘song’ just as Chopin did. He was the first, and the piano music he left us is the music of angels, the music of another world.”

Felder steps into the role of Chopin with complete credibility—from his Polish accent and rendering of Chopin’s artistic temperament to his concert-level playing of some of the most exquisitely lush piano music ever written.  He plays selections from some 15 pieces—polonaises, valses, preludes, mazurkas, and nocturnes—and seems to be spontaneously working them into the story as he goes.  Felder guides you with information about the inventive and enlivening forms that characterized Chopin’s brilliance—even in his youth, he was keenly aware of the fine-line between improvising and composing—as well as his love of Polish songs and dances.   And this is as much the story of music’s golden age as well—an incredibly compressed period, some 200 years— when musical and artistic genius flooded middle Europe.  How profound when Chopin says, “When I was 17 and had my debut, Bach had died 78 years earlier.”  Bach’s compositional genius influenced him heavily and Bach was an importance point of reference when he was teaching his students. This was also a time when high drama characterized the life of composers and transfixed the public, as much as Hollywood does today.

As a small boy, self-taught Chopin made up his own music almost at once, intuitively understanding the intimate relationship between improvising and composing. When he was seven, his first teacher wrote down one of his lush improvisations, a polonaise, and had it published.  At his first appearance in Paris, on February 26, 1832, he performed a concerto he had debuted to great success in Warsaw.  Both Liszt and Mendelssohn attended and heaped praise upon him.  Chopin’s reputation as a pianist is based on just thirty or forty concerts…it was salon playing that sealed his reputation.  Photo: John Zich

Hershey Felder as Chopin. As a boy, self-taught Chopin made up his own music almost at once, intuitively understanding the intimate relationship between improvising and composing. When he was seven, his first teacher wrote down one of his lush improvisations, a polonaise, and had it published. At his first appearance in Paris, on February 26, 1832, he performed a concerto he had debuted to great success in Warsaw. Both Liszt and Mendelssohn attended and heaped praise upon him. Chopin’s reputation as a pianist is based on just thirty or forty concerts…his salon playing sealed his reputation. Photo: John Zich

Speaking of transfixed, I wasn’t able to take my eyes off Felder, a natural born storyteller, and I never would have guessed that he has given this performance over 800 times. That he’s of Polish ethnicity, considers Chopin his pianistic home and lives in Paris, and even owns one of Chopin’s pianos, are no doubt huge factors in the attention to detail and care that he has poured into this.

We all love a love story and the audience on the edge of their seats as Chopin told of his relationship and semi-guarded Bohemian lifestyle with French novelist George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), a woman whose importance as a writer has been eclipsed by her notoriety for wearing trousers, cigar-smoking and her involvement with Chopin.  Strong-willed Sand was painted in broad strokes but we get enough flavor to ascertain that he was attracted to her nurturing and protective side and that she loved him and, for 8 years, tolerated his fragility, mood swings and unpredictability and then, abruptly, she ended it.

Chopin’s relationship with Sand is also an effective vehicle for exploring the vibrant environment of the French salon where his small scale piano pieces, most of them brilliantly improvised, were a hit and fundamental to his legacy. “Invention came to his piano, sudden, complete, sublime,” wrote Sand who would frequently lay under the piano as he played for her.

Chopin’s dedicated student, Karl Flitsch, who Felder also lovingly draws on, wrote “The other day I heard Chopin improvise at George Sand’s house.  It is marvelous to hear Chopin compose in this way: his inspiration is so immediate and complete that he plays without hesitation as if it could not be otherwise. But when it comes to writing it down and recapturing the original thought in all its details, he spends days of nervous strain and almost terrible despair.”

Felder’s works a great deal of humor into this piece and his funny and illuminating impressions of the people in Chopin’s life—like the swooning women in his audience or Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt, Chopin’s biggest “frenemy” in Paris—humanize Chopin and impart information.  Liszt attended Chopin’s first concert in Paris and promptly declared him a genius and became his agent, collaborator, friend, and at times, bitter rival for public attention, and oddly, his first biographer.

Chopin’s elegant salon (sets by Yael Pardess) is framed by an ornate golden trim, giving it the feel of a romantic period painting to be entered.  Chopin’s Steinway and bench are front and center and a lovely fireplace whose mantle is adorned with Sevres style porcelain vases and an ornate clock are behind.  There’s a delicately carved wooden table with a pitcher where he fastidiously washes his hands, as if to rid himself of the unpleasant memories he’s just shared.

The set also features “smart drapes,” a subtle and elegant scrim for different lighting effects (Richard Norwood) and projections (John Boesche & Andrew Wilder) which change their color hue and design in accordance with various phases of Chopin’s life.  In 1829, when Chopin met his first love, a singing student named Constantia Gladkowska, she was dancing a Polish Mazurka and caught his eye.  Against spectacular dark lighting, she appears romanticized in a white traditional Polish folk dress, smiling and dancing the Mazurka with other young Polish girls.  Felder completes the portrait with his “Mazurka in A Flat Major, Op. 50 No. 2,” a short vibrant piece which concludes in a burst of chromatic harmonies.

Sunday’s opening night became even more special when Polish Consul General Mariusz Brymora from Los Angeles, presented Felder with the “Bene Merito” honorary distinction on behalf of the Polish government.  Established in 2009, this distinction “is conferred upon the citizens of the Republic of Poland and foreign nationals in recognition of their merits in promoting Poland abroad.”  Felder, deeply moved, also received a beautiful Polish woodcut.

Following this, Felder/Chopin engaged with the audience in an open Q & A, further revealing his skill as an improvisational performer.

The ultimate irony, which I mention in closing, is that this performance nearly sold out before it opened and was extended until August 10 and those performances are nearly sold out.  It’s much easier to get people to go to this than an actual Chopin concert.  We live in the age of story and it’s the combination of music and story that brings people in.  Of course, after experiencing Monsieur Chopin, who could not be hungry for more?

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission

The music of Fryderyk Chopin is played Hershey Felder enacting Chopin

Production Team— Yael Pardess (Scenic Design), Richard Norwood (Lighting Design), John Boesche & Andrew Wilder (Projection Design), Benjamin Furiga (Original Sound Design), Joel Zwick (Director), Trevor Hay (Associate Director, production stage manager), Erik Carstensen (Sound design, production manager, production stage manager). Samantha F. Voxakia (General Manager, co-producter), Eighty-Eight, LLC (Producer)

Details:  Monsieur Chopin runs through April 20, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.

Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and Thursday, August 7.

Tickets: $29 to 87.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.  Tickets and info: 510 647–2949 or visit: www.berkeleyrep.org

Parking:  Paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $5 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM.

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July 30, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Santa Fe’s Chamber Music Festival: Dawn Upshaw Sings Bach

The public is invited to attend dress rehearsals for several of the more popular performances at The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, July 17-August 22, 2011. Here, in the historic St. Francis Auditorium, artists warm up for their Bach sonata, one of three Bach pieces, performed on July 23, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Santa Fe was attending a Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival Bach performance featuring renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw in the historic St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art.  Upshaw is the festival’s Artist-in-Residence this summer, and is performing in five concerts, including a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s autobiographical song cycle Ayre, written especially for her.  The festival, in its 39th season, runs from July 17-August 22, 2011, and includes over 80 concerts, recitals, master classes, youth concerts and open rehearsals featuring the works of numerous composers performed by 68 artists and five ensembles. Concerts take place in downtown Santa Fe at the intimate St. Francis Auditorium and the Lensic Performing Arts Center.  One of the very best aspects of this fabulous festival is that several of its most popular (and sold-out) concerts have free open rehearsals which afford audiences the chance to really see how a performance comes together.

Upshaw sings Bach Cantata No. 199

The concert I had the pleasure of attending on Saturday, July 23, 2011, was the first in the Festival’s popular Bach Plus series. It featured Dawn Upshaw singing Cantata No. 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (“My Heart Swims in Blood”), BWV 199, with oboist Allen Vogel, violinists L.P. How and Kathleen Brauer, violist CarlaMaria Rodrigues, cellist Ronald Thomas, bassist Marji Danilow, and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh.  Also on the program was British violinist Daniel Hope in Bach’s beautiful Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 (1720) and violinists Jennifer Gilbert and Harvey de Souza in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043 (ca. 1721).

The highlight was Upshaw, one of the leading sopranos of our day, who is blessed with a luminous voice that seems to know no bounds.  In 2007, she was named a MacArthur Fellow, receiving an award commonly referred to as the “genius grant.”  She first came to prominence as a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Development Program, as a protégé of James Levine, but gradually became better known for carving her own very unique repertory. Her 1993 recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” familiarized many with her stunning voice and paved the way for more work in new music with leading composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams and Kaija Saariaho, who seem to be as inspired by her as she is by them.  After taking time off to battle early-stage breast cancer in 2006, she re-emerged seemingly even stronger.  This June, as Music Director of the Ojaj Festival, she collaborated with Peter Sellars in the eclectic new production of George Crumb’s The Winds of Destinywhich had its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.  She sang the role of a traumatized veteran, home from Afghanistan.

World-renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw is the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s Artist in Residence. Photo: Brooke Irish/Ojaj Festival

This was my first time hearing Upshaw live.  This particular cantata, the perfect vehicle for her to display what’s so special about her singing, combined with the inviting and beautifully frescoed environment of the St. Francis Auditorium and the enthusiasm of the audience, enforced how important it is for us and for performers to participate in live performances, no matter how fine our audio collections are.  Upshaw met these very accomplished chamber musicians on their own turf, not only in her mastery of her voice but also in her approach to the technically demanding Baroque music itself—with precision and superb expression and the deep emotional reservoir required for its interpretation.  She had recorded the cantata in 1997 for her 2001 release “Angels Hide Their Faces.”   

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 199, first performed in 1714, is one of his earliest cantatas and was written while he was employed as organist and chamber musician for the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, one of the most cultured nobles of his time.  The cantata is scored for a solo soprano and a tiny orchestra of one oboe, strings and continuo.  The cantata’s text is by Darmstadt court poet and librarian Georg Christian Lehms and draws on what would have been the Gospel for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Luke 18:9-14), which relates the parable of the proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector.   The theme is humility and repentance.  Bach wrote the cantata in eight parts, placing the emphasis on the soprano, who sings an alternating sequence of recitatives and arias across the duration of the piece.  The cantata opens with a deeply emotional recitative, a sinner’s dark confession of a guilty conscience and the horror of being separated from God.  The first aria is a grief-stricken supplication, accompanied by solo oboe, while the second aria is a plea to God to remain patient with the sinner.  The final aria is cast in the form of a gigue—a lively dance of the Baroque era written in compound time—underpinning the singer’s joy, basking in the light of God’s forgiveness.  Upshaw traced the emotional arc of the eight segments not only in her expressive voice but in her face which literally beamed at the end.

Upshaw and the players performed with such clarity that all of the richly layered polyphonic voices emerged clearly throughout.  Allen Vogel was superb in his oboe obbligato and engaged in a lyrical and balanced interplay with Upshaw, one voice standing out momentarily then receding to give the other the spotlight.  

After the concert, I had the opportunity to ask Upshaw why she sang this particular cantata.  She explained that it was chosen for her by the Festival director, Marc Neikrug.  “I was thrilled,” said Upshaw, “because this is my favorite cantata that I’ve ever worked on and it’s so beautiful as well as so challenging.  I don’t have the opportunity to sing Bach all that much now as I am doing a lot of new music. I am doing some Bach with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) which I am partnering with through the 2012-13 season, but otherwise I’m not doing the Passions really any more.  I think we can all relate to feeling regret and feeling that kind of darkness and wondering if there’s a way out.  Thank goodness there’s redemption at the end.  There’s hope!”

Two New Chamber Music Commissions:

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is contributing to the contemporary chamber music repertoire with two new commissions this summer season by internationally acclaimed composers Christopher Rouse  (String Quartet No. 3, July 28th & 29th), and Sean Shepherd (Quartet for Oboe & Strings, Op 114 August 11th & 12th; world premiere). In conjunction with these performances, the Festival presents pre-concert talks with both composers, open to the public. The Festival also offers private master classes with Mr. Rouse and Mr. Shepherd to area conservatory/college music students through its American Composer Residency program.

Festival Highlights Still to Come:

Golijov’s Ayre performed by Artist-in-Residence soprano Dawn Upshaw and eleven festival artists (July 31 & August 1);

Flutist Joshua Smith and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh and cellist Joseph Johnson  perform Bach’s sonatas in B Minor, E Major, E Minor and A Major (August 6);

Pianist Joyce Yang makes her Festival solo recital debut (August 9);

World premiere of the co-commission by Sean Shepherd (August 11 & 12), plus a pre-concert talk with the composer (August 12);

David Shifrin and the Orion String Quartet perform the Festival premiere of Marc Neikrug’s Clarinet Quintet (August 15);

Ida Kavafian, Peter Wiley and Anne-Marie McDermott perform the complete Beethoven Trios over the course of two nights (August 17 & 18);

Time for Three performs in concert at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (August 19);

Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires on August 13 and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on August 20;

The season’s finale (August 22) includes pianist Cecile Licad and Victor Santiago Asuncion performing Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion with percussionists Jeffrey Milarsky and David Tolen.

Open Rehearsals:  The Festival’s popular Open Rehearsals are free and open to the public, providing a unique and informal look at the dynamics of Festival performances and artists.  Click here for the open rehearsal schedule.

Details:  The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival continues through August 22, 2011.  Tickets may purchased by phone 505.982.1890 or visit the website at www.SantaFeChamberMusic.com.  Specific seat selection is available only with phone and in person purchases.  There is no additional handling fee. To purchase tickets in-person, the Festival Ticket Office is located in the lobby of the New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 West Palace Avenue (at Lincoln Avenue) on the northwest corner of the historic Santa Fe Plaza and is open daily from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM.

August 2, 2011 Posted by | Chamber Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment