Classical music offers spiritual transcendence for performers and audience members alike. But as the distinguished Israeli pianist and playwright Israela Margalit suggests in her loosely autobiographical new play, “First Prize,” the classical music world is also saturated with much that is sordid and soul-destroying. “First Prize,” which begins previews this weekend at the Arclight Theatre on the Upper West Side, features music from Margalit’s own celebrated recordings with some of the world’s greatest orchestras.
Directed by Margarett Perry, “First Prize” follows a pianist named Adrianna over a 35-year period, as she makes and sustains a career for herself despite many obstacles, including insults, rejection and sexual harassment. Lori Prince (who appeared in Daniel Goldfarb’s “Sarah, Sarah”) represents the main character in her youth, while Susan Ferrara — who in the early scenes of the play performs the role of her music teacher — plays her later in life. Brian Dykstra and Christopher Hirsh play the managers, agents and conductors who alternately help and hinder Adrianna in her quest for success.
Margalit, who was born in Haifa, began performing in Israel at 13. She went on to study in conservatories in Tel Aviv, Paris and Munich before performing with 50 major orchestras throughout the world. In the 1970s, she was married to the acclaimed conductor Lorin Maazel, with whom she had two children.
After the birth of her children, Margalit took a break from concertizing and attended Case Western University in Cleveland, where Maazel was music director. She then started writing plays, beginning with “Night Blooming Jasmine,” about Israeli and Arab Jews in northern Israel. Her second play, “3 O’Clock in Brooklyn,” dealt with the complications of modern romance in New York.
Her third and most successful play to date, “Trio,” is about the possible love triangle among Robert Schumann, his wife Clara, and their young protégé, Johannes Brahms. “Trio” debuted in Moscow and toured for five years throughout the former Soviet Union; it had its American premiere last month in Los Angeles. Margalit has also written extensively for television, including an award-winning series on music appreciation hosted by Sir Peter Ustinov. (Her second husband, Paul Rauch, is a well-known producer of daytime soap operas.)
“Classical music is viewed as very sacred, a world of inspiration and exhilaration,” Margalit told The Jewish Week. “But it is also a cutthroat world full of intrigue in which only the tiniest fraction of musicians succeed. It presents a conflict between those who have a tremendous desire to succeed, and those who have the overriding power to grant that desire.”
Margalit sees music as inherent in Jewish life. “There’s an affinity to classical music that Jews are born with,” she said. “Perhaps it comes from chasidic music. It touches something in the Jewish soul.”
“First Prize” opens May 2 and runs through May 21 at the Arclight Theatre, 152 W. 72nd St. Performances are Monday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. For tickets, $18, call TheaterMania at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.theatermania.com.