“Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.”
This has been the Golabek family mantra for four generations of concert pianists.
As pianist and playwright Mona Golabek settles on a sofa in a private meeting room outside the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, the intimate performance space at the Geffen Playhouse, she passes along these familial words of wisdom. She’s in final rehearsals there for the premiere of her one-woman performance/play The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which opens Wednesday for a two-month run.
Golabek explains that it was Malka Jura, her maternal grandmother, and the first concert pianist in the family, who used these words to urge her young daughter, Lisa Jura, to remain steadfast in her devotion to her music, as the girl departed Vienna in 1938 on the Kindertransport to England.
Lisa had been preparing for her concert debut at the historic Musikverein Hall in Vienna, considered one of the best concert halls in the world. Instead, thanks to the Kindertransport, she evaded the Nazis and survived World War II in a house full of transported Jewish children on a street called Willesden Lane.
Later, having resumed her interrupted career, she passed Malka’s advice on to her own two daughters, Mona and Renee, who each became concert pianists in turn.
Many years later, after Renee had succumbed to cancer, Mona passed on the advice to Renee’s four children: pianists Michelle, Sarah, and Rachel and violinist Jonathan.
Now, inspired by her mother’s story, Mona has written a book and a play about the interlude on Willesden Lane.
“We know about the pain of that time,” she says, “but I’ve taken a positive approach. I wanted to emphasize the legacy of triumphant survival she left for her family.”
As an added homage to her mother and grandmother, in 2003 Mona established the Hold On To Your Music Foundation, which, according to the foundation’s website, “seeks to expand awareness and understanding of the ethical implications of world events such as the Holocaust, and the power of the arts, especially music, to embolden the human spirit in the face of adversity.”
With the support of the Milken Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, Golabek’s book The Children of Willesden Lane (co-authored with Lee Cohen and upon which her current play is based) was expanded into an array of educational materials, including video resources, that would assist teachers in presenting to students its message of hope and triumph in the face of evil.
More than 50,000 copies of the book have been provided to some 110 schools in 28 states and more than 150,000 students have read it. Further, Golabek makes frequent concert appearances at schools around the country to play her mother’s music, to provide answers to their many questions about the Holocaust and to foster discussions on such issues as morality, ethics, and the power of music to uplift the spirit.
The book served as an inspiration for Hershey Felder, the celebrated pianist/performer (George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin, Beethoven As I Knew Him, Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein) to serve as adapter, producer, and director of Golabek’s current show. Golabek plays some of the world’s most beloved piano classics, “a la Hershey Felder,” she says, as she tells her mother’s story.
Her father, too, was prominent in his own right. Born in Poland, Michel Golabek became a member of the Polish resistance movement during World War II and won the Croix de Guerre for his activities. He married Lisa Jura when he came to America, and their daughter Mona was born in Los Angeles.
Although Golabek credits her mother with being her primary piano teacher, she acknowledges having studied with Leon Fleisher, Reginald Stewart, and Joanna Graudan as well.
In 1972 she won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, which led to her concert debut at Carnegie Hall. A few years later she also won the Avery Fisher Prize and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition.
In 1979 composer William Pratt created Concerto for Mona, which Golabek played as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the direction of Zubin Mehta, and she later repeated the performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
In 1985 a television special dealing with her life and career, titled More Than The Music, was aired on PBS and won the grand prize at the Houston Film Festival that same year.
Meanwhile Golabek and her sister Renee Golabek-Kaye recorded a best-selling rendition of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, which featured Ogden Nash’s poetry and the voices of Audrey Hepburn, Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin, James Earl Jones, Walter Matthau, William Shatner, Betty White, Charlton Heston, Dudley Moore and others. The Golabek sisters also played together on Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, which was narrated by Meryl Streep.
But her overwhelming passion was to tell her mother’s story. “Lisa Jura was most spectacular,” she says. “She always dressed to the nines because she thought it was important to look ‘divine’. She was like a Viennese Sachertorte mit Schlag [a cake with whipped cream].”
Lisa was one of three daughters, but her parents chose her to leave Vienna on the Kindertransport rather than her sisters (they could send only one child) because they felt that with her prodigious talent she would survive. “They believed the music would give her strength,” Golabek says, “and their belief was justified when Lisa made her debut in London’s Wigmore Hall immediately after the war.
“Our family has always felt that if you have something to hold onto — something to empower you — it will get you through the darkest of times,” Golabek adds.
“I’m a good storyteller,” she says, “and I’m blessed to tell my mother’s story through words and music. It’s a beautiful love story, too. My father followed my mother to America and I was born to fulfill their dream.”
In this, her first theater venture, Golabek enrolled at Howard Fine’s acting studio and “did a little improv. He was very kind,” she notes, “and helped me to understand how breathtaking and extraordinary an art form it [the theater] is. But it’s not where my ambition lies,” she continues. “It’s an arduous, lonely life. So there’ll be no Shakespeare for me.”
But there has been romance. Her first partner was a German conductor who, upon seeing the Jewish Star of David that she wore, began to cry. More recently, however, she has been engaged in becoming a mother to her sister’s four talented offspring.
“Michelle graduated Stanford Phi Beta Kappa and is now pursuing a degree in public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard while at the same time pursuing a law degree at Yale,” she beams.
“Jonathan is at USC studying music,” she continues, “and the youngest, Rachel, is 17 going on 40…
“But Sarah,” she says, lighting up. “Sarah, when she was at Stanford, decided to go to Poland to teach English,” she begins. “And while she was there she visited the towns where her ancestors had lived before the war. Unexpectedly, she discovered the grave of her great-great-grandmother, Leah Tickotsky, and set herself a mission to restore the cemetery.
“She also decided to research the Polish memory of the Holocaust and interviewed more than 200 Polish historians, clergymen, government officials, professors, students, and others, and produced a document that chronicled the memory of the Holocaust as filtered through the Communist viewpoint in Poland.
“Later, with the collaboration of TV Bialystok, she produced a film documentary, Finding Leah Tickotsky, that covers her experiences in Poland and ruminates about Polish-Jewish relations.”
Pausing to catch her breath, Golabek turns to her second-favorite subject — her weekly radio program that is syndicated to 80 stations and XM Satellite Radio. Called The Romantic Hours, it features classical music interspersed with poetry, letters, and stories. “I’ll read letters from Brahms to Clara Schumann, or from Chopin to George Sand,” she says, “and then maybe stream of consciousness writing from James Joyce or entries from someone’s diary.
“Music itself tells stories,” she concludes, “so I think it’s a perfect mix.”
The Romantic Hours airs locally on Sunday nights from 9 to 11 pm on K-MOZART, 1260 AM.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane, presented by Hershey Felder and the Geffen Playhouse; adapted/produced/directed by Hershey Felder. Opens April 25. Tue.-Fri 8 pm, Sat. 3 and 8 pm, Sun. 2 and 7 pm. Through June 24. Tickets: $67. Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. Los Angeles. 310-208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.
***All The Pianist of Willesden Lane production photos by Michael Lamont