Performing Arts

Using Piano to Bring A Literary Masterpiece to Life

Da Camera pianist Sarah Rothenberg pays tribute to Marcel Proust, bringing his novel to life through music and mirth.

By Nick Esquer February 5, 2016

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Pianist Sarah Rothenberg's latest concert piece, A Proust Sonata, brings the French essayist's In Search of Lost Time to life.

Image: Da Camera

In 1909, French essayist Marcel Proust set out to write his epic seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, which included more than 2,000 characters and touched on themes like homosexuality, art and separation anxiety. Proust died in 1922, leaving the novel unfinished. His arching motifs and mysterious legend connected with literary followers as well as philosophy buffs, visual artists and musicians, like Da Camera pianist and Francophile Sarah Rothenberg.

“I’ve always been a French fanatic, it’s part of my studies... Proust is very central to French culture. I also studied French piano music in Paris, so these things are close to my heart,” says Rothenberg, whose eponymous theatrical study, A Proust Sonata, plays at Wortham Center Feb. 11 and 12.

Rothenberg draws from Proust’s writing to create a musical exploration on stage with award-winning actors and designers. The goal for Rothenberg—who began dreaming up the piece some 20 years ago with her first Proust-based concert—was to find a way to bring the writer’s text to life, hitting on his obsession with memory.

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Marcel Proust

“I think one of the things that really is central to Proust is this idea of memory and the role that memory plays in our lives,” she says. “There are memories we carry with us that are really powerful moments…and suddenly we’re transported to this other time.”

The new work receives its world premiere here in Houston after being workshopped at the Fisher Center in New York’s Hudson Valley and at Manhattan’s performance art space 3-Legged Dog. Rothenberg brought in lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and set and costume designer Marina Draghici—both Tony winners—to highlight the ethereal visuals surrounding the music, which also include photographs from Bell Epoqu–era Paris.

“My goal in a piece like this in creating a very visual world and moving—I hope—seamlessly between spoken word and musical performance is that the audience gets lost in the whole thing.”

Musically, Rothenberg accentuates her affinity for French culture and the time in which Proust was writing with impressionistic compositions by Debussy, Chopin and Ravel, bringing to life an artistic wonderland as well as the writer’s imagination.

“There’s a lot of similarity and closeness as far as Proust’s ideas and his own writing of the experience of listening to his own music,” Rothenberg notes. “We hear a scene return and we recognize it. It’s an invisible structure… We really are what we remember in a very deep way.”

Feb 11 & 12 at 8. $30-65. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas St. 713-524-5050.

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