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Review: Felder’s new musical film looks at Chopin’s life and music from a fresh perspective

Antonio Lysy, Boris Giltburg and Hershey Felder in a scene from "Chopin and Liszt."
(Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

In 2019, Felder performed a live solo play on Chopin at San Diego Repertory Theatre, but this new film flips the script

Since the pandemic began, playwright-pianist-performer Hershey Felder has been using his time off the road turning many of his well-traveled solo plays about famous composers into increasingly ambitious multicharacter and multi-locale films, produced from his home base in Florence, Italy.

The latest composer to make the stage-to-film transition is Frédéric Chopin, in Felder’s just-released streamer “Chopin and Liszt.” Felder’s audience-interactive “Monsieur Chopin” play broke San Diego Repertory Theatre’s box office record during an extended run in 2019. But Felder cautions that “Chopin and Liszt” is not an adaptation of that play. It’s an entirely new creation.

Felder’s Chopin stage play — which he’s now performing live through Sept. 11 at TheatreWorks in the Bay area — is about Chopin telling stories about his life and playing excerpts of his compositions to a group of young music students (the audience). In the new film “Chopin and Liszt,” the composer’s life and music are interpreted entirely from the perspective of his fellow composer, Franz Liszt. Some of the music excerpts Felder plays in the film are the same as in the play, but otherwise it’s a new story filled with intrigue and surprises.

Originally planned as a fundraising vehicle for San Diego Rep before it shut down in June, “Chopin and Liszt” is now being offered for on-demand screening only through Felder’s website, hersheyfelderpresents.com.

“Chopin and Liszt” opens in Paris in 1849, shortly after the Polish composer has died at age 39, and those who knew him best are dealing with the aftermath.

Chopin’s sister Ludwica (Eleanor Reissa) is selling off his manuscripts to pay debts, his lover George Sand (Debi Mazar) is gathering up all of his personal papers to protect her own privacy, and Listzt’s longtime lover Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein(Sally George) is collecting anecdotes for a Chopin biography she’ll ghost-write under Liszt’s name. Their combined actions would eventually shape how much, or how little, we know about Chopin today.

In the movie, Chopin is played by Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg and Liszt by Felder. Both men are consummate pianists and all of the masterfully played music in the movie was played and recorded live, much of it on Chopin’s own piano. The two-hour film has a generous amount of music, and Felder is an especially nuanced interpreter of what Liszt called Chopin’s compositional “cloud of sound.” In fact, the entire film, co-directed by Felder and Stefano Decarli, has an enveloping mood of the melancholy that weaves through much of the depressive Chopin’s music.

For much of the film, Liszt and Carolyne discuss Chopin’s career for the book — which would become the definitive Chopin biography — and as they talk, scenes from the past reflect the stories behind the compositions.

There’s a jaunty polonaise inspired by Chopin’s happy childhood in Poland, the mournful second movement of the Concert in F minor, reflecting Chopin’s exile and his family’s ruin after Russia invaded his native country; and the haunting Piano Sonata No. 2 (“Funeral March”) transmitting his “soul sadness” after sister Emilia’s death at age 15. On the flip side, there’s also the famously peppy Grande Valse Brillante.

Liszt worshipped Chopin as a genius, but his love was not returned. Chopin ridiculed the Hungarian composer behind his back for his small number of compositions and, perhaps out of jealousy, Liszt’s public-pleasing, showy performance style. So it’s interesting that Liszt would have the last word on the “Poet of the Piano” in the biography that Carolyne used to aggrandize his importance to Chopin.

While this is a fully realized film that bears no resemblance to Felder’s one-man show on Chopin, it does have a surprise coda: An impromptu, full-cast sing-along scene that Felder’s fans will from many of his live performances.


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