Inspired by her mother’s and grandmother’s legacies, world-renowned pianist and recording artist Mona Golabek combines timeless music and powerful storytelling in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Golabek brings a special edition of this critically acclaimed one-woman show to Connections 2013, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s annual women’s gathering on January 27 at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue.
With a goal of gathering 500 or more Jewish women around a theme of “Women Making Choices,” “Mona’s story will help everyone understand how easy we have it, compared to the choices some women have had to make,” said Connections co-chair Iantha Sidell.
Golabek’s story begins with her pianist grandmother Malka Jura’s forced choice in 1938 Vienna to send only one of her children away on a kindertransport to the safety of faraway England. She chose her teenage daughter, Lisa. A piano prodigy herself, torn from her beloved concert halls and from her dreams of playing the Grieg piano concerto on their stages, the determined Lisa Jura made her way to London, to a children’s hostel at 243 Willesden Lane.
Malka left her daughter at the train station in Vienna with these words: “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend in life.” Lisa shared that friend, and made friends ever after, in her mother’s spirit.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is based on Golabek’s book “The Children of Willesden Lane,” co-written with Lee Cohen, and brought to the stage by producer Hershey Felder, who has performed as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein in his own one-man shows. Introduced to critical acclaim in Los Angeles and Boston in 2012, “The Pianist” requires Golabek to meet the astonishing challenge of speaking in character while playing famous classical music solos at the highest professional level.
Lisa wound up marrying a Polish resistance fighter and settling in Los Angeles. There, she taught her mother’s words and her own stories to her two daughters, sitting side by side at the piano bench. The dreams of concert careers that she and her mother had sacrificed took flight in the careers of Mona and her sister, the late Renee Golabek-Kaye.
Named for her grandmother Malka, Mona Golabek has added her grandmother’s and her mother’s stories to the powerful wave of voices emerging from the Shoah’s surviving generations. She has created the Hold On To Your Music Foundation (www.holdontoyourmusic.org) with the stated mission “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.”
“The Children of Willesden Lane” has already become part of the widely used “Facing History and Ourselves” curriculum. “A hundred fifty thousand students have read the book so far,” Golabek said. “Students in Alabama who had never even heard of the Holocaust have told me they have been inspired to hold on to their own dreams as a result of their work with Lisa’s story.”
The success and power of that work inspired Golabek to make a midlife career change.
“I’ve had a strong career,” she concedes, as a concert pianist, recording artist, and radio performer. “But I saw that God, or someone, or destiny, gave me this.”
Her story is her work now. A reviewer for the Boston Globe wrote, “We sense that she has to tell it.”
Golabek’s music-plus-readings radio show, “The Romantic Hours,” produced in L.A., airs nationwide. It is not currently broadcast in Seattle, but Amazon sells it on CD with glowing reviews. She credits her mother for teaching her, by example, to combine music and the spoken word.
“During piano lessons,” she recalls, “Mom would talk about the bombs, or about the big kid at the hostel who whistled the Grieg piano concerto to her to make her laugh.” Mona and Renee understood that they were to “be worthy of the losses. Be worthy of the pain. We knew we had a clarion call to make something of our lives.”