The Sunday Conversation: Pianist Mona Golabek holds on to the music

L.A. concert pianist and radio show host Mona Golabek makes her theatrical debut at the Geffen Playhouse in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” a one-woman show of music and words based on “The Children of Willesden Lane,” the book she co-wrote about her concert pianist mother’s journey from 1938 Vienna to England on the storied Kindertransport. The show runs through June 24.

Why did you want to tell your mother’s story?

When I was a little kid, when she taught me the piano, she made it the most extraordinary experience. They weren’t really piano lessons; they were lessons about life. We’d be working on a Beethoven sonata and out of nowhere she would say, “Mona, did I ever tell you about the time that Johnny ‘King Kong’ read poetry to me at nighttime when the bombs came down?” Before she would answer the question, we’d go into a Chopin nocturne. And then out of nowhere she’d say, “What about when Aaron whistled the Grieg piano concerto to me at nighttime to comfort me?” And I thought, who were these amazing characters?

One day when I was in my 20s, I was engaged to play the Grieg piano concerto with the Seattle Symphony. So I woke up the next morning after getting that engagement and thought, “Wow, this is the piece that my mom told me all the kids would whistle when they would see her during the war years. This is the piece that tells the story of her life.” And I thought I wanted to tell her story.

Is it possible to put into words how music contributed to your mother’s survival?


She would tell me how my grandmother, the woman for whom I’m named, gave her a gift at the Westbahnhof train station in Vienna, when she was put on the Kindertransport and sent away from Vienna to save her life. My grandmother looked at my mother, took her face in her hands and said, “You must promise me that you will hold onto your music. It will be the best friend you ever have. I will be with you every step of the way when you’re playing that music.” It was that phrase at the train station that guided her through this dark period. Ultimately, she ended up at this Jewish hostel in the northern part of London and she told me how her music became a beacon of hope and inspiration for these 30 kids ... because all these kids came from a background in Europe where classical music was such an important part of their lives. It kind of reminded them of what they had left behind and what they had lost.

Hershey Felder would seem to be the ideal director for you. How did this become a theater piece?

I knew of Hershey Felder, of course, being the consummate artist who has developed a tour de force in the one-person show involving music and true stories. I went to see his Gershwin show three years ago at the Geffen Playhouse, and I decided to call him up and ask for his advice. I went to the Geffen theater in the afternoon, I did a mini version of what we now have ... which I had the privilege of doing for a lot of students across America ... and then he said, “I will produce you.” Just like that.

I was in shock because I knew this would be an extraordinary opportunity for me to work with him, and I followed him to different places. I went to Arizona, Paris, New York, Chicago — wherever he would be performing we would carve out some time to work on the show. Since I had never done something like this, it was an exhilarating and absolutely exasperating process.

I can see how it would be exhilarating. How was it exasperating?

First of all, I had no background in the theatrical world. My background was as a concert pianist and as a storyteller. I had a radio show, where I had developed the telling of stories of the great composers, but that’s a whole different genre. I really didn’t know anything about acting. And also, flying around … you get bits and pieces; it’s not your normal way of working.

Do you have any hopes or plans to take this show to New York or on the road?

My dream is ultimately to bring this to New York and to the London theater. I think it would play beautifully in London, since most of the story is about a young Jewish girl growing up during the Blitz in London and about the heroics of the British people saving these 10,000 Jewish children. That would be like my paying tribute to their enormous generosity. We’ve begun an initial conversation, but the most important thing to me right now is to make the run at the Geffen as artistically beautiful and complete as possible. It is absolutely the greatest professional experience of my life.

You and your sister Renee performed at the 60th reunion of Kindertransport children in London in 1999. What was that like?

That was an amazing experience. There are about 2,000 survivors left now of the 10,000 original Kindertransport children. About 1,000 people showed up for that event, and Richard Attenborough, the director, was the keynote speaker because his family took in two sisters from the Kindertransport. What was most touching was that my niece Sarah, who I think was 9 years old at the time, said to the audience in a little squeaky voice, “I make a pledge to you that I will tell my children, so you will never be forgotten, what you went through.” What all of this is about is, who’s going to tell the stories when they’re gone and pass it on?

You’ve been combining words with music since you launched your radio show in 1998. How did that come about and when does it air in L.A.?

It airs on K-Mozart — KMZT [1260 AM] here in Los Angeles on Sunday nights from 9 to 11 in the evenings. Being a concert pianist and touring is a very lonely profession. I was doing 150, 200 dates a year. I would come off the road and find myself crashing into a kind of — I wouldn’t want to say depression — but you’re not part of the normal life here of your family and friends. And you’re exhausted. And I thought, do I really want to do this for an entire life?

Around that time I was promoting a recording. I turned to the person who was interviewing me and I said, “I have a fantasy to be a voice at night on radio telling stories.” He said, “Why don’t you do a demo tape for us?” I brought in my diaries of George Sand, who was the lover of Chopin, and Clara Schumann and some of the poetry of Robert Browning, and I read. We started a temporary show, I had no title. I said, “Why don’t I call it ‘The Romantic Hours?’” I meant it as a tribute to another time, the 19th century or the 18th century when life went at a slower pace.

You don’t limit the show to Romantic music?

Not at all. We’ve done now about 400 radio shows where we [do things like] mix Bach with Chinese poets. It’s a complete potpourri. We don’t announce the pieces until the end. It flows one thing into the next. We lay my text down over the music.

We got syndicated; we got a tremendous reaction from listeners around the country and we also had detractors. There were a number of program directors who did not like hearing my voice over the opening of a Beethoven sonata. So we just kept going down our path.