Chopin plays Berkeley Rep
I’ve had a two notable Chopin experiences. A dozen years ago during a stay in Warsaw, the composer’s home town, my wife and I signed up for the “Mini-Chopin Tour.” A van picked us up at our hotel at 8:00 PM and ferried us, along with eight other anticipatory souls, to an elegant 18th century palace that had been stunningly rebuilt after devastating World War II bombing had flattened it and most of the city. It was closed to the public at that hour, but our little band was admitted through a side door and ushered into an elegant white-and-gold salon, where we perched on spindle-legged chairs and sipped flutes of champagne while we were treated to a private Chopin concert played on a Bösendorfer by a swan-like woman with impressive credentials and swooningly deft technique.
My second notable Chopin experience? Receiving a piano lesson from the master himself last Sunday night.
Impossible! you say–he died in 1849. Nonetheless genius lives on, and it’s currently embodied by another sort of genius, Hershey Felder, in a show called Monsieur Chopin, now at Berkeley Rep.
If you’re fortunate, you’ll know Felder from two previous Rep incarnations, one as George Gershwin, the other as Leonard Bernstein, in which Felder “became” those composers for intimate 90-minute chats-with-accompaniment that took us into their lives and their music. When I say “became,” I mean more than “imitated.” Such are Felder’s chameleon talents, and his piano and vocal skills, that I forgot after a few moments that I wasn’t in the presence of the man who wrote Porgy and Bess and the man who provided the jagged syncopations and bittersweet melodies of West Side Story.
Felder’s Chopin show is just as astonishing. Outfitted in breeches and a frock coat, and sporting a mane of Chopin hair, Felder greets the audience as if each of us has just arrived for a piano lesson at an exact place and time, Paris, March 4th, 1848, the very day he was given his final walking papers from his great love, the novelist George Sand, “the most famous woman in France.” He tells us in a soft, precise, liltingly-accented voice that he assumes we have brought something to play–but wait. Since it’s our first lesson, he’ll do the playing (his compositions only), to ease us into the experience, he says. What follows is a tour through Fryderyk Chopin’s life, from his happy childhood in Warsaw in the bosom of his family, though his exile from Russian-oppressed Poland, first to Stuttgart, then to Paris, where he found fame and mingled joy and sorrow, and finally to his death at age 39.
What’s with God, he cries, who gave him all that talent only to snuff it out betimes!
Written by Felder and directed by Joel Zwick, with an elegantly luxe set by Yael Pardess, subtly shifting lighting by Richard Norwood, and fine projections by John Boesche and Andrew Wilder (flames, soldiers at war, a maiden drifting through a wood), the show fascinates from beginning to end. Felder loves Chopin, but he’s a showman first and foremost, so he’s never stuffy. He keeps it brisk and witty, and he concludes his time with us with an entertaining audience Q & A, in which he pretends that, as the dead Chopin, he’s all-knowing enough to complain about cell phones.
As for Felder’s piano playing, there’s plenty of it: mazurkas and preludes and nocturnes that include Chopin’s greatest hits, performed in a stirring style that’s both delicate and vigorous. To begin, we’re treated to a polonaise Chopin composed at age seven.
Monsieur Chopin plays on Berkeley Rep’s thrust stage on Addison Street until August 10th. The Rep’s 2014-15 season begins in September with the world premiere of An Audience with Meow Meow. For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.