Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lessons in life: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

In her one-woman show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso
Mona Golabek chronicles her mother's escape from the Holocaust.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is the true story of Lisa Jura, a 14-year-old Jewish musical prodigy who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitzkrieg, this story of hope and perseverance includes some of the world's most beloved piano music. It has been turned into a one-woman play starring internationally celebrated pianist Mona Golabek, Jura's daughter, that is enjoying an encore run this month at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre following a critically-acclaimed New York premiere.

This poignant, 90-minute tribute is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane, written by Golabek and Lee Cohen. It's a coming-of-age story of one young girl's survival and how music saved her life.

My wife and I attended a performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane last Friday evening in Berkeley, Calif., in which Golabek slips into the persona of her mother at age 14 during the tumult of adolescence and war, and we both found it to be a very passionate and enriching experience.

Imagine if you will, being confronted with the horror of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Vienna, and, then, being the chosen one among three siblings to be saved from the Holocaust with the one ticket your family had for the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Lisa Jura's parents were forced to make a difficult family decision. They chose to send the gifted Lisa to London and safety.

In a hostel on Willesden Lane, Lisa fought to realize her musical dreams. Her music became a beacon of hope for the many displaced children of the war. From Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to Debussy's "Clair de Lune", which Jura later passed down to her daughters, each represented the power of music to uplift the human spirit.

"My mother, Lisa Jura, was my best friend," writes Golabek in the play's program notes. "She taught my sister, Renee, and me to play the piano. We loved our piano lessons with her."

And, yet, they became more than piano lessons -- they were lessons in life.

"They were filled with stories of a hostel in London and the people she knew there," said Golabek. "Her stories were our folklore, bursting with bits and pieces of wonderful characters who bonded over her music."

Sitting at the piano as a child, Golabek recalled, "I would close my eyes and listen to her lilting voice and imagine her world. She always believed 'each piece of music tells a story.'"

The virtuoso Golabek performs a dozen different pieces of classical music plus a few light standards, sitting center stage with her Steinway grand piano as her co-star, during The Pianist of Willesden Lane. The play was adapted and directed by Hershey Felder. Throughout, there's an infusion of hope shaped by the life-affirming power of music. A classical piano repertoire has the power to do just that. The three movements of Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" serve as a beginning, middle and ending to Jura's story in The Pianist of Willesden Lane.

As Golabek appears center stage at the play's beginning, she says: "My name is Lisa Jura, and I'm 14 years old." Her voice has transformed into a girlish lilt with a slight accent. "It's Vienna, 1938, and it's a Friday afternoon. I'm preparing for the most important hour of my week -- my piano lesson."...

In the introduction to The Children of Willesden Lane, Golabek wrote: "My mother had lived an incredible journey and she had infused her music with everything she had experienced: her childhood with loving parents in Vienna before World War II; her escape to England aboard the legendary Kindertransport; her struggle to study her music while a war raged around her; and, always, her endless fascination with that ramshackle building at 243 Willesden Lane, the hostel in the London suburbs where she lived as a young refugee separated from her family."

As she boarded the train in Vienna, Lisa's mother told her: "Never stop playing and I will be with you every step of the way." Jura took those words to heart. Her legacy has inspired Golabek's music and her own life. "Music will give you strength," her mother reassured her. "It will be your best friend in life."

In each piece of music during The Pianist of Willesden Lane, there is a story. And, through Golabek's narrative and performance, we discover what those stores are and their importance. She says of her mother: "I pass along her story in the hope that it may enrich the passion and music that lie in each of us."

Indeed, as the audience stood and applauded Golabek at the conclusion of her heartfelt performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, there weren't many dry eyes on this rainy winter's night. What we had just witnessed was, indeed, a deeply moving and inspiring tribute to the power of a mother's love for her children.

The music played in The Pianist of Willesden Lane:
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16; first movement.
• Beethoven: Sonata, op. 27, no. 2; "Moonlight"
• Debussy: Clair de Lune; "Moonlight" from Suite bergamasque.
• Chopin: Nocturne in B-Flat Major, op. 9, no. 1.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16; second movement.
• Bach: Partita #1 in B-Flat Major, BMV 825.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto, op. 16; first movement Cadenza.
• Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, BMW 147.
• Audition scene: Bach Partita #1 in B-Flat Major; Beethoven Piano Sonata #21 in C Major, op. 53 ("Waldstein"); Chopin Scherzo #2 in B-Flat Minor, op. 31; Scriabin Etude in D-Sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2.
• Gershwin: "Strike Up the Band".
•Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)".
• Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 18; third movement.

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