By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Mona Golabek is an award-winning concert pianist who has performed with major orchestras around the world and been the subject of several PBS-TV documentaries.
In 2003, she co-wrote a book about her mother, Lisa Jura, who was her first piano teacher and lifelong inspiration. The book became the basis for a one-woman show, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” which premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2012.
Pianist/actor/composer/playwright/ producer/director Hershey Felder, well- known here for his portrayals of Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin, adapted and directed the original production, which the
called “an arresting, deeply affecting triumph.” The show has since gone on to successful runs in Chicago, Berkeley and New York, and will be coming to San Diego Repertory Theatre Sept. 3-28.
At the keyboard, Golabek shares her family memoir of music, hope and survival, accompanying it with her own renditions of pieces from the classical piano repertoire. The story begins in Vienna in 1938, with 14-year-old Lisa Jura, whose mother is also a pianist, dreaming of her Viennese concert debut. But the Juras are Jewish, and the coming of the Nazis puts an end to Lisa’s dreams. Lisa is lucky enough to be one of 10,000 children taken to safety in London as part of the rescue mission called the Kindertransport. Her mother’s last words to her as she boards the train: “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.”
Willesden Lane was the hostel where Lisa managed to survive both the Holocaust and the bombing of London, ultimately having her concert debut at London’s Wigmore Hall. Her parents were not so lucky.
Years later, honoring the words of the grandmother she never got to meet, Mona Golabek founded Hold On To Your Music, a nonprofit which provides copies of her book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” and educational materials about events like the Holocaust, to students and teachers. The organization is dedicated to spreading the message that even in the face of terrible adversity, music has the power to lift and embolden the human spirit.
In a recent interview, at the end of a sold- out, seven-week run of “The Pianist” in New York, Golabek talked about the show’s evolution, and her own. “I learned my mother’s story during my piano lessons. She would say: ‘Every piece of music tells a story, but you have to discover what the story is.’
“As I played, she would tell me stories, about the boy she fell in love with at the hostel, or how she pounded out a Grieg concerto while the bombs were coming down. Those were the things that sustained her, and she passed them on to me.”
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” began as a 40-minute selection of her mother’s stories, which Golabek shared at readings around the country. After seeing Hershey Felder’s performance of “Beethoven As I Knew Him,” she phoned him to ask for advice on how to turn her piano-accompanied readings into something more.
“He was so generous,” she said. “I showed him what I’d been doing, and he took me under his wing. He transformed and enriched the piece, and made me become my mother, telling the story in her voice. And the music is the secret arrow that pierces the heart.”
Performing “The Pianist” has been a thrilling experience, Golabek said, not least because of the hundreds of letters she receives, especially from young people, saying how much her mother’s stories inspired them. “Every night, before I go on stage, I open one of the letters and read it. That helps me give my whole heart to every show.”•
IF YOU GO:
San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production with Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” plays matinees/evenings Sept. 3-28; opening Saturday, Sept. 6 at Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Four hours of free parking in Horton Plaza with validation at theater. Tickets are $18-$47 at (619) 544-1000 or