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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

Review: “Pianist of Willesden Lane”—a daughter strikes a deep chord in her mother’s musical story of survival, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso and author Mona Golabek channels the very spirit of her mother, Austrian pianist Lisa Jura, in the musical telling of Jura’s Holocaust survival story.  This heart piercing solo show of music and words, which opened last Wednesday (Oct 30) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a deeply moving triumph.

Produced and adapted by Hershey Felder, who just a few months ago brought and performed the solo show, George Gershwin Alone, to Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is based on the acclaimed best-selling book, The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek & Lee Cohn.  The story is one of separation, sacrifice, and the power of music and family to elevate the spirit in the darkest of times.  Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in this searing tribute to her remarkable mother.

Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, was just 14 in March 1938 when German troops entered Vienna and interrupted her life in this cultural capital where Jews congregated.  The changes were confusing and unpleasant—Lisa, a piano prodigy, could no longer take piano lessons from her beloved teacher who was discouraged from interaction with Jews.  Her dream of a debut at the fabled Musikverein concert hall was shattered.  The situation escalated on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938), when her father—a tailor—suffered a humiliating brush with death that led to the decision to flee Austria.

The family was only able to secure a single ticket on the highly-demanded Kindertransport train which rescued children threatened by the Nazis and took them to England.  It was decided that Lisa, the middle child, should go, as she stood the best chance of thriving as a classical pianist.

Bolstering Lisa throughout the ordeal were the last words her mother spoke to her—“Hold onto your music.  It will be your best friend in life.” These words were uttered at the Vienna train station in November 1938 as Lisa joined hundreds of crying children in saying their good-byes forever to their parents.  Many times, in those darkest of days, when disappointments, fear or pain were about to overwhelm her, Lisa recalled these words.

Jura was one of 10,000 refugee children brought to England before World War II as part of the Kindertransport mission.  As soft-spoken Golabek recounts her mother’s story, we are riveted. Imagine Lisa’s anxiety when the relative, who was supposed to meet her at the station in London and care for her, was unable to fulfill his promise to her family and she was abandoned.  Like many refugee children aged 14 and above, she became a domestic worker and was expected to earn her keep.  She was sent to a large country estate to work.  When she was unable to play the piano there, which she was told was for show purposes only; she left abruptly and travelled alone to London where she settled in at the titular Willesden Lane home for children. It was there that she slowly began to flourish—the piano as her anchor— and began life anew in London with the sad realization that she might never see any of her family members again.

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Mainly seated at the Steinway piano, Golabek uses slight shifts in her posture at the keyboard and in phrasing to help tell the story of young Lisa’s gradual transformation into a young virtuoso.  She plays interludes from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach, Gershwin, Strachey, Rachmaninoff and Grieg without sheet music and also commits considerable spoken passages in the 90 minute performance to memory.  Her calm delivery is achingly authentic.

From the performance’s earliest moments, we learn that Lisa dreams of making her own concert debut with Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16,” an exceedingly difficult and challenging piece that requires maturity, stamina and technique. The Norwegian composer was just 24 when he wrote this brilliant concerto in three movements, the only concerto he ever completed. Hershey Felder fleshes out the great storytelling moments in Lisa’s journey and loosely hangs them around the Grieg concerto and Golabek plays portions of all three movements.  The audience was clearly stirred at the very exciting moment of Lisa’s scholarship audition at the London Academy of Music where she performed from stirring Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin piano classics flawlessly.  But at the end of the evening, when Golabek played from the Grieg Third Movement, with its adventurous rhythms, tears flowed freely.

Well-executed décor and video projections greatly enhance the performance.  A gorgeous array of huge gold gilt picture frames surround the Steinway on the Thrust stage.  These antique frames serve as video portals for Felder’s well-curated of selection of personal and archival news photos, newsreel footage, and famous artworks.  Set in the glow of the midnight blue stage, with Jura’s punctuated playing, it’s a sight to behold.  Particularly riveting are portraits of family members, glorious shots of old Vienna, and the devastation of the London Blitzkrieg which destroyed Lisa’s place of asylum in London, the home for young refugees at 243 Willesden Lane.

The impact of this inspiring performance comes in waves…. What strength it must take for Golabek to channel her mother on a daily basis, knowing full well that she is here and only able to do what she does because of her grandparents’ sacrifice that allowed for her mother to pursue her dream.

Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.  Starring Mona Golabek as Lisa Jura

Creative team: Trevor Hay and Hershey Felder (scenic designers), Jaclyn Maduff (costume designer), Christopher Rynne (lighting designer), Erik Carstensen (sound designer), Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal (projection designers).

Run-time is 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Post-play discussions: Thursday 11/14, Tuesday 11/19, and Friday 12/6 following the performance and after all weekend matinees

Repartee: FREE docent talks @ 7:00 PM on Tuesday and Thursdays and free discussions after all weekend matinees

Details: Pianist of Willesden Lane, has been extended through January 5, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and some Thurs.  Tickets: $29 to $89.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.

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 $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is accompanied by a free voucher ticket that is available in the theatre lobby.  These new tickets accommodate the newly automated parking garage’s ticket machines and are available in a pile located where the ink stamp used to be.

November 8, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment