Category Archives: Grieg

The Pianist of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek


I wrapped my Christmas/New Year’s break by taking in a performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Berkeley Rep.  It’s the story of Lisa Jura, as played by her pianist daughter, Mona Golabek.  Over the course of 90 minutes, Mona portrays her mother as a teenage Jewish girl intently focused on her piano studies as the shadow of Nazism begins to darken Vienna.  As her family’s safety becomes more and more tenuous, her parents manage to acquire a coveted space for the talented Lisa aboard the Kindertransport, which whisked her to Holland, then on to London.  Music plays a huge role in the play, as it did in Lisa Jura’s life – the center of the stage is dominated by a Steinway concert grand, and the Grieg Piano Concerto becomes a major character unto itself.  It’s Lisa’s favorite piece, and it bookends the performance.  Mona Golabek plays beautifully, and successfully weaves in the classical music so important to her mother during the war years.  We hear a beautiful, never-sadder Clair de Lune played by a young Lisa the day before she departs on the Kindertransport; we hear the thundering chords of the Grieg Piano Concerto go head to head against the terrifying explosions of the Blitz as Lisa’s hostel crumbles; we hear Mona Golabek channel the great Myra Hess playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring during one of her beloved afternoon concerts at the National Gallery.  “The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ is finishing up its extended run, and the remaining performances are sold out, so you may not have the chance to see it at the Berkeley Rep.  My recommendation is to read Mona Golabek’s 2003 book The Children of Willesden Lane; Beyond the Kindertransport; A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, co-written with Lee Cohen, on which the play is based.

Grieg: Op. 12, no. 8: National Song

Maestoso, indeed!  When I play this, I hear a brass band performing in a public square in Bergen, Norway, where Grieg had a country villa.  I’m using my imagination, but I’m sure it happens!  This piece is a fantastic way to practice bringing out the melody while playing chords.  Of course, there are secondary voices that should be clearly heard, as well.  Grieg was obviously paying close attention to voice leading while composing this final piece of Op. 12.

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 7: Album Leaf

With its two nicely contrasting sections, Album Leaf is a joy to play.  Grieg was obviously enjoying himself as he neared the end of Op. 12.  You’ll have a choice to make in m. 3 and 7 (and during the subsequent repeats) – do you use the pedal to connect the legato in the left hand, whereby losing the staccato in the right, or do you honor the staccato marking and give up the left hand legato?  I kept the staccato, by the way.  Decisions, decisions…

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 6: Norwegian Melody

The shortest of the Op. 12 pieces, Norwegian Melody packs a rhythmic punch.  Be careful to distinguish between eighth notes and triplets to maintain an steady pulse. In the middle section, pull back on the dynamics, but really bring out the forzato (with force, energy; the note or chord is to be strongly accented).

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 5: Folk Melody

Folk Melody is marked con moto, so be careful not to let it drag (my version runs around 92 bpm). In measures 9-11 and 25-27 I found it much easier to play the dotted half notes with the left hand thumb.  I found that playing those notes with my right hand thumb tended to impede my ability to play the upper melody cleanly, and making the switch didn’t seem to make the playing of the left hand more difficult. I should point out that in the phrases that follow (measures 13-15 and 29-31) my Dover edition shows the dotted half notes of the same voice being taken with the left hand thumb.

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 4: Elves’ Dance

Here’s one of the most popular Lyric Pieces. Try to keep everything light and listen for nice, crisp staccatos. For the final 5 measures, I used the una corda pedal, mainly to get the chords even close to ppp. I then captured the last of the 7 low chords with the sostenuto pedal, which sustains the chord to the end of the piece while keeping the chords of the last two measures clean. I didn’t like the clashing of the D sharp and the E when using the sustain pedal (as indicated in the score).

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Grieg: Op. 12, no, 3: Watchman’s Song

Happy belated birthday, Edvard Grieg! I missed it, but what’s a day when you’re celebrating your 170th, right? The story goes that Grieg wrote this after attending a performance of Macbeth. It includes an Intermezzo section subtitled Spirits of the Night, I use the una corda pedal during the rumbling arpeggios, but let up when the triplet chords begin. Overall, be careful not to rush the easy parts!

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 2: Waltz

The score indicates pedal, but I hold off until the Coda because of the very specific articulations throughout the body of the work.  Measures 7 & 8 contain the most challenging combination of slurs and staccatos.  Be careful to bring out the melody when it switches to the left hand in the middle section.  It’s very easy to play the right hand chords too loud.

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 1: Arietta

Grieg composed 66 Lyric Pieces between 1867 and 1901, leaving us an incredible wealth of piano miniatures. My goal is to record all of them, starting at the beginning, with Arietta and its beautiful cantabile melody. Note that in measures 5 through 9 the right hand repeatedly plays E and G. Once I noticed this, the memorization process became easier. I enjoy landing on that amazing chord in measures 12 and 22 and waiting for the moment that the harmony resolves.

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San Jose Piano Teacher

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