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Our Laguna: A buoyant blending of different cultures

The collaboration of the Laguna Playhouse and the Festival of Arts Saturday night was a real coup for the Laguna Beach Sister Cities Assn.

Sister Cities members and friends, visitors from the French Consulate in Los Angeles, and city officials were treated to a reception and private viewing of some of the Festival’s art collection and tickets to a stunning tour de force by actor and pianist Hershey Felder performing as Frédéric Chopin and playing his music.

Felder appeared as himself at the reception, an unannounced bonus.

“That’s why I told everyone to be here by 7,” said Karyn Philippsen, president of the Laguna’s Sister Cities group and the Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau.

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Felder also mingled with the audience after the two-hour, uninterrupted solo performance, which included a question-and-answer period in character, to be toasted with champagne by admirers.

A native of Quebec, Canada, Felder now lives in Paris with his wife, Kim Campbell, the first female prime minister of Canada.

“About four years ago, we decided that there was no other place to be than Paris,” said Felder, who speaks fluent French.

As “Monsieur Chopin,” he speaks with a Polish accent — absolutely pitch perfect, said one member of the audience of Polish extraction.

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Felder presents Chopin as talking to a group of students who have come to his Parisian studio for a piano lesson.

Two weeks ago, he was performing “George Gershwin Alone” at the Playhouse and his New York Jewish accent rang so true, it was a shock to learn it was not his native tongue.

“I had two or three days to make the transition from Gershwin to Chopin,” Felder said. “It was very difficult.”

Friends of the Library President Martha Lydick jokingly asked if the there would be a sing-along at the conclusion of his Chopin performance as there had been at the end of the Gershwin show.

Felder sang a few bars of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” a pop standard adapted from Chopin’s Fantasie Impromtu at the reception, but non. He did make a sly reference to Rainbows in one on-stage tutorial to his students.

Gershwin, Felder said, was harder for him to portray than Chopin, because the Polish exile to Paris is closer to his own, more European sensibilities.

Association Vice President Pat Kollenda asked if he ever considered a large-cast Broadway show as a broader canvas for his talent.

Again, non. This way he gets to call the shots.

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Felder’s ability to play intricate pieces of music while sticking to a complex script is astounding. Asked how he does it, he said he pictures the score in his head and the words written as if a lyric and sometimes, but not always, he speaks to the music’s cadence.

Felder stepped out of the past during the post-performance Q and A to explain that his body is buried in Père LaChaise Cemetery with opera and sacred music composer Cherubini to one side and rocker Jim Morrison on the other. (Chopin’s heart is enshrined in Poland, as he wished.)

Felder has been in Laguna since early January for his run as Gershwin, which began Jan. 12 and concluded Feb. 21. The Chopin show regrettably ends Sunday. But he will be back in a couple of months to perform “Beethoven, As I Knew Him” from May 11 to 23. Next year he is doing Leonard Bernstein.

The composers were chosen for their singular contributions to the evolution of Western music in the past 200 years, Felder said.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. It is also the 90th anniversary of the Laguna Playhouse, with Philippsen at the helm of the two-year-long celebration, which was kicked off by Felder’s performance as Gershwin.

“Ninety years is a long time and there are too many events to cram it all into one year,” Philippsen said.

However, it was in her role as Sister Cities Assn. president that she introduced at the reception the Los Angeles French Consulate Deputy Scientific Attaché Thomas Biederman and Assistant Cultural Attaché Paul Cassarino.

Philippsen also gave special thanks to the playhouse and to festival Director of Special Events and association Social Chairwoman Susan Davis for making the Sister Cities event possible. Playhouse staffer Amy Larsen did double duty, greeting guests at the reception and at the theater.

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The Laguna Sister Cities Assn. was founded in January 2008 after a visit to Menton, France, by Philippsen, then-Mayor Toni Iseman, Kollenda and Carol Reynolds.

They came home convinced that Menton was not just a sister, but practically a twin.

According to the Sister Cities website, Menton is a resort on the French Riviera with beach and hilltop homes ringed by mountains. It is 5.4 square miles with a population of 25,500. Sun shines on Menton 315 days a year. The temperature averages 77 degrees in the summer and 60 degrees in the winter.

There are 35 hotels and resorts in Menton and an art museum. Cultural activities include the Fete d’ Musique, which Reynolds has emulated here.

Compare that to the association’s statistics on Laguna: An 8.5 square-mile city of about 25,000 that goes from sea level uphill to an elevation of around 1,000. We enjoy 280 days of sunshine with summer temperatures that average 76 degrees and winter temperatures of 62 degrees.

Tourists at the city’s 26 or so hostelries are one of the city’s major revenue streams.

Our cultural venues include Laguna Art Museum, the Laguna College of Art & Design, three art festivals and the Playhouse.

The goal of the all-volunteer, nonprofit association was to establish and maintain a long term relationship with Menton that would encourage the exchange of cultural, educational and business activities.

Besides Philippsen, Kollenda and Reynolds, the board includes Secretary Nancy Beverage, Treasurer Mary Reiner and directors Hélene Garrison, Richard Schwarzstein, Jennifer and Fred Karam, Steve Rabago, and Betsy Jenkins. Justin Myers is the liaison to the board from the Newport Beach Sister Cities Assn.

New members are welcomed at a cost of $25 per person, $50 for a family and $100 for a business.

Saturday’s event was just one of the benefits of membership, Philippsen said.

It was also a benefit of the cordial relationship between art organizations, festival President Wayne Baglin said, extolling the results of the playhouse and festival collaboration on the Sister Cities event.

“What you see happening is unique to Laguna,” Baglin told the guests at the reception and a beaming Playhouse Managing Director Karen Wood.

Guests included Nancy and Len Joseph and Norway, their guide dog trainee who just celebrated his first birthday; Jim and Karen McBride, who was in the cast of “Quilters,” the production that gave the playhouse international recognition; Nanette and Dennis Myers, who assisted in the creation of the Sister Cities strategic plan, and Cherry and Vern Spitlaleri, who helped raise thousands of dollars for the playhouse while he was on the board.

Also: City Council members Jane Egly and Iseman, Laguna Beach High School French teacher Odile Dewar, Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau Executive Director Judy Bijlani, Community Clinic board member Vera Martinez, Mary and Hank Rabe, Susie Lawrence, Faye Baglin, Ron Kaufman and Laguna Beach Community Band singer Linda Hughes, who will be performing with the band at the playhouse May 2.

And: jeweler Patti Jo Kiraly, Bluebird Canyon residents John Gustafson and Jim Moore, Sande Schwarzstein, Jim Kollenda, and Laurie Swenson, who was looking forward to the opening of Swenson Fine Art Gallery this week at the South Coast Highway site of the former Sherwood Gallery.


OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com


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