Friday, July 28, 2006

Chopin Is Alive And Well . . . And Concertizing In Cambridge!

It was an impromptu evening. The Red Sox were back in town, but enjoying a well-deserved day off. So, the stage at the theater known as Fenway Park was dark, and I was free to follow other footlights. I remembered that at the Loeb Experimental Theater (“The X”) at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square, the Harvard-Radcliffe players were presenting “The Maids” by Jean Genet, so I headed to Brattle Street and the theater of the absurd that is the game of finding a parking space on a summer evening in Cambridge!

Upon arriving at the ART, I headed for the box office, and noticed that “Monsieur Chopin” with Hershey Felder was playing on the main stage. I assumed it was sold out, as had been the case with the Cambridge run of his 2005 hit, “George Gershwin Alone,” but the woman at the ticket window “improvised,” and managed to find me a single seat for the evening’s performance. As I entered the theater I was instantly transported to Frederic Chopin’s Paris salon, March 4, 1848. The show’s conceit is that the audience members represent piano students who have come to Monsieur Chopin’s salon for a piano lesson. Around this premise, Felder as Chopin talks about his life as an artist as he plays compositions from key stages of his life.

The set designer, the gifted Yael Pardess, has created a fascinating setting for this transmogrification of Felder into Chopin. The gorgeous tableau of Chopin’s Paris salon is set within a proscenium – a sumptuous gilded frame that was built slightly off plumb. It is as if Chopin the artist and his oeuvre are slightly off kilter and are being displayed as such in the “Salon” – the official Paris art establishment that rejected the Impressionist painters who did with their brushes on canvas what Chopin accomplished with his fingers on the keyboard – both kinds of artist using a light touch and subtle impressions to create poetic imagery.

Throughout the magical evening, Felder “the pianist” plays Chopin – that is, he plays the music of Chopin – Polonaises, Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Preludes, Valses. But Felder “the actor” does not play Chopin the artist – as much as he becomes Chopin, almost channeling the Polish ex-patriot. Many years ago, as a budding piano student, I learned to play Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat, Opus 9 No. 2, so I am quite familiar with the composer’s music. Felder brought my appreciation of the musician and the man to a new level with his loving portrayal of the genius haunted by “melancholia,” - in today’s parlance, “bi-polar disorder.”

Chopin’s stormy relationship with the writer, George Sand, suffused his life and his music, and hovers over the evening’s piano lesson. At one point, her image is projected onto the scrim that doubles as the back wall of Chopin’s salon. She has been described as “the most famous woman in her country.” In a delicious and ironic “theme and variation” of art imitating life imitating art, the actor Felder is married to Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada, and arguably, “the most famous woman in her country.”

Felder has a passion for taking classical music out of the museum and making it once again part of everyday life – accessible and fun. In that regard, he stands on the shoulders of Victor Borge. As a child, I had a chance to see Borge perform live. Like Felder, The Danish pianist used the keyboard as a dais and as a stage from which to communicate life and truth through music. Borge did it as a comedian and clown, a “court jester of the keyboard,” if you will. Felder does it as a dramatic actor and mimic. I have no idea how to evaluate Borge as a musician; I was too young to know how to rate his musical technique. But he was a gifted communicator and he made music fun for me. Felder does the same thing with flawless musicianship and stunning technique.

If you live within driving distance of Cambridge, you have this weekend only to catch “Monsieur Chopin” at the ART. This engagement ends on Sunday, July 30. The show moves to The Hartford Stage from August 4-13, and then onto Ravinia in September.

“Monsieur Chopin” is part of a three movement “Sonata” that Felder is developing around the lives and music of Chopin, Gershwin and Beethoven. He will premier the Beethoven show early in 2007. I plan to be among the first in line for tickets!


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