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The Power of Music: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

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I think of music and food as the ultimate conveyors of history: communicating stories, memories and the emotion of individuals, groups and nations. After 9/11, I attended the opening of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then lead by Maestro Daniel Barenboim, the renowned Jewish pianist-conductor from Argentina. He opened the season by extravagantly explaining, in a passionate and heart-felt way that only a Latin-Jewish-artist could, that at first he considered not having the opening ceremony to honor those who had died. However, he quickly decided against it because music is how we honor people. It is what we do at funerals and it is what we do at weddings. It is both celebratory and mournful. It commemorates a moment and lives on long after that moment has passed. The CSO played the national anthem that night and Samuel Barber's Agnus Dei, mournful in its own right, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Later that same week, I attended the opening night for Chicago Lyric Opera's 2001 season. The General Manager spoke to the packed audience of opera lovers, aficionados, and amateur opera singers. His speech to the audience was short and to the point. Music was the best way to convey how we all felt, he explained, so we should sing. He invited every person involved with that night's performance: opera divas, extras, and union lighting guys alike and every person with every range of voice in the audience to belt out the national anthem. I have never been so moved to my core as when I heard 2,000 people, most with operatic voices, singing ad alta voce from their depths -- to the verge of tears -- the American national anthem.

I was recently reminded of the power of music to tell stories and to brand a memory into our souls when I saw The Pianist of Willesden Lane during its first run at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. The play, starring Mona Golabek and based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, originally started at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. The Pianist of Willesden Lane opens for a second run at the Royal George Theatre June 12.

Mona Golabek is a trained, award-winning and Grammy-nominated classical pianist, and a joy to watch and listen to at the piano. Through seemingly part invocation and part etched-in-her conscious memory, Mona recounts and animates the life of her mother, Lisa Jura, also a classical pianist. Lisa Jura grew up in Vienna. In 1938, in a game of cards, her Father won a spot for one person on the Kindertransport. Sent to London as a girl during the Blitzkrieg to an uncle who couldn't care for her, Lisa kept her dreams of playing at the Musikverein concert hall alive -- and her will to survive during an impossible time -- through her love of music.

Ms. Golabek isn't an actor and this works in her favor. Her intimate unveiling of her mother's life feels more like a story being told in a living room to friends who, after a meal and a few drinks, have their guards down and are listening to her share her deepest, darkest secrets.

Producer Hershey Felder explained to me via email why he decided to bring The Pianist of Willesden Lane to the stage:

"First and foremost, Mona is a SPECTACULAR pianist and that alone is worthy of presentation to the public. But in terms of the story, it's so wonderful and colorful and hopeful despite the terrible circumstances within which the story takes place, that I envisioned an exciting and immersive theatrical experience for the audience. I am told that with all our hard work, this is the result."

The Pianist of Willesden Lane and Mona's mother's story have had an impact on many who have seen it, Mona explained to me by email:

"People wait in line up to 45 minutes to share their reactions to the show. I have hugged grown men and women who are crying and young people who tell me how deeply they relate to my Mother's story. People tell me they have been so affected that this is the second or third time seeing the show."

Interestingly, the actual music played is less than one might expect, but the segments Mona plays surround the audience in Lisa's life. Through the art of storytelling at the piano, we come to understand that music carried this story over generations and music, in-part, gave Lisa the will to live. Music is what ultimately saved her life. We know that music made her strong and that music brought people and love into her life, enriching even the hardest of days, acting as an eternal gift that, through The Pianist of Willesden Lane, still lives on.