Jeffrey Siegel: Bringing the masters to the masses


Do you love classical music? Or, do the names Beethoven, Bach and Brahms intimidate you? Either way, Jeffrey Siegel’s Keyboard Conversations allow everyone – from the avid music lover to the novice – to truly enjoy a classical concert experience.

Keyboard Conversations are “concerts with commentary,” as Jeffrey puts it. They are first and foremost concerts because each musical piece in the program is performed in its entirety. “What I like to think of as the ‘plus’ is that prior to the performance of each work I talk to the audience a bit about the music, with some excerpts out of context,” explains Jeffrey. “I do this with the hope that when I sit down to play the piece straight through, the listening experience is more enriched and focused than it might otherwise be, and that it also provides an attractive and accessible introduction to these great works for somebody who might be hearing their first concert.”

Jeffrey during the 1968-69 season of Keyboard Conversations.

Jeffrey has been sharing Keyboard Conversation with audiences for half a century. He began in his native Chicago at Northwestern University and has since traveled to cities across the country and abroad to London, England. The next season at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts will mark 40 years that he has been coming to the Valley.

“As I think back over the more than 50 years that I have been doing these concerts with commentary, I think the need for great music and what great music offers the thinking, feeling person is greater today than it has ever been,” he says. “We’ve become robots, with our cell phones and computers. What really great music does is to transport one, move one, deeply affect one, as only great music can – (it) is more important for a human being now than ever before.”

Love of music from the start

Jeffrey started playing the piano at the age of 5. His mother always told him that from infancy he had an acute sensitivity and reaction to great music. Perhaps this stemmed from his surroundings.

His father was a string bass player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he lived on a street in Chicago where many musicians, some of the symphony, resided. “The joke in Chicago was that you had to pass an audition to live on that street,” jokes Jeffrey.

He went to public high school in Chicago and made his professional debut when he was 15. He won a statewide competition, and the prize was to be soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I played the third Beethoven piano concerto with them,” remembers Jeffrey. “The joy of playing this great piece of music sort of focused my desire to try to be a classical pianist.” As a result of that experience, he attended The Julliard School in New York, and he’s been in that city ever since.

The first three or four decades of his career he was primarily in “white tie and tails” performing formal concerts where he would not say a word to the audience. “You play, you bow, you take the check and you leave,” says Jeffrey. Jeffrey’s path began to change when he was inspired by watching “Young People’s Concerts” on CBS televised from Lincoln Center. These concerts were led by a conductor who would say a few words about the piece of music before the performance. The conductor was Leonard Bernstein.

Guidance from Lenny

In November of 1988 Jeffrey was playing a series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. At the same time, Leonard Bernstein (Lenny as he insisted on being called) was conducting a program of his own music. The two men were seeing each other during various rehearsal times and one morning Jeffrey came in to rehearse and Lenny was in the room next to his.

“It was 8:30 in the morning and he already had a glass of scotch in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other,” says Jeffrey. “He knew about the Keyboard Conversations and he asked me a lot of questions. At the end, he said, ‘I’ve heard a lot about how you do these programs, Jeffrey, I know it’s great to be here in white tie and tails as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, but I’m telling you that these Keyboard Conversations are the most important work that you are doing. I beg you, always make time to do them because you are doing them the right way, you’re doing them the way I used to do them.’ That was the last time I saw him; he died a couple of years later.”

They also discussed how difficult it is to talk about music in a way that’s engaging, without being overly scholastic. “We became musicians to communicate in tones – not words about tones,” explains Jeffrey. “I learned a great deal from him as for how to do this, and we talked a great deal about what not to do. He was a great influence on me.”

In celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday this year, Jeffrey is performing a special “Bernstein Birthday Bash” that will feature music from “West Side Story” and “Candide.” But especially compelling is the inclusion of an unpublished piano piece of Bernstein’s. How Jeffrey happened to get this particular piece is an interesting story.

The biographer of Bernstein, Humphrey Burton, attended one of Jeffrey’s concerts and he came backstage to tell Jeffrey, “You know you are doing exactly what Lenny was doing, only you’re doing it for piano literature,” and he invited Jeffrey to have lunch with him the next day.

At the end of lunch, Humphrey casually told Jeffrey he has with him an unpublished piano piece of Bernstein’s called “Meditation on a Wedding” and asked Jeffrey if he would he like a photocopy of it? “As a result of Humphrey’s appreciation of what I was doing with my Keyboard Conversations and following, if you will, the Bernstein manner, he gave me this unpublished piano piece of Lenny’s, which is about three minutes long,” says Jeffrey. “To the best of my knowledge, it is still unpublished, and I am the only one who has a copy of it.”

This piece will make its Arizona premiere at the “Bernstein Birthday Bash” concert April 3 at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. The program will feature three American Jewish composers: Bernstein, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. Bernstein played Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” American work for the piano more than any other American composition. “He played it frequently and recorded it twice,” explains Jeffrey. “Gershwin made a solo piano arrangement of it, that’s what I will be playing. It was a great favorite of Lenny’s and I thought it would fit the program – works of three American Jewish composers, perhaps the three greatest Jewish American composers of the 20th century.” 

Introducing classical music

Since music education has been cut from schools for many years now, a large segment of the population has not been exposed to classical music. These people get to be adults and realize that they are missing something and they want to give classical music a try. Because of the informal nature of Keyboard Conversations, people come to these programs.

“I get a lot of first-time listeners of all ages, not just children, but senior citizens who are hearing their first concert,” says Jeffrey. “It is so important … the first exposure to classical music be positive and engaging. Once that seed is planted – of listening to great music – (it) becomes something they have for the rest of their life.”

When Jeffrey plays for a group of young people, he plays a shorter program tailored to the attention span and the interest of a younger audience. He plays pieces with descriptive titles like the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” or “Diary of a Fly.” Jeffrey says one of the greatest compliments he ever received came from an 11-year-old boy who came backstage after one of these concerts. “He said, ‘Hey, Mr. Siegel, I just have to tell you – Beethoven’s not that bad.’ I got through to him that Beethoven’s not that bad. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. I feel I’m accomplishing something.”

Another memorable occurrence happened during a question and answer session, which Jeffrey holds after every concert. A 9-year-old boy broke free from his mother’s grasp and shouted, ‘Mr. Siegel, how many hours a day did Bach have to practice?’ That is a question I will always remember.” Luckily for Jeffrey, everyone was laughing so hard, including himself, that he did not have to actually answer the boy.

When you ask Jeffrey if his own children are musicians, his response is, “They are normal.” Both went to Northwestern University and they used to say to their classmates, “My dad is coming to play a concert, he’s going to talk to us about the music.” If their friends were trying to decide on whether or not to attend, his kids would add “he’ll take us out to dinner after.” Jeffrey jokes that as more and more of their friends started to enjoy coming to the concerts, “My dinner bills kept getting larger and larger.”

Jeffrey’s son currently lives in the same neighborhood in Chicago where he grew up. “The neighborhood that I grew up in was mostly a Jewish neighborhood, but not Orthodox,” Jeffrey says. “Now if I am there and I am not wearing a skull cap, I am the oddball.”

The appreciative audience

Bernstein would say, “Music expresses the inexpressible.” That is the challenge when Jeffrey presents his concerts – to find the words to draw the listener in, to make the experience more than what Bernstein used to call “an ear wash of sound.” Every piece of music has that challenge.

“The one thing about the piano repertoire is that it’s a vast treasure house of musical riches,” says Jeffrey. “In a lifetime you can’t even know it all, let alone play it all. Whether it’s a Chopin piece or a Beethoven work, or Mozart, you can very often talk about the musical ingredients and how the composer ‘cooks up’ the piece with these musical ingredients. There is usually something about every great piece of music which makes it what it is, and that’s what you want to share with the audience without boring them with a lot of technical details.”

One of Jeffrey’s favorite venues to perform at is the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. The “devoted audience” is always a combination of people who have been coming for many years and those that are novices to classical music. “It’s a wonderful place to play; the audience is listening with rapt attention and they even laugh at my jokes,” says Jeffrey.

The Scottsdale Center also boasts something unique to the venue – the Keyboard in the Sky. This technology consists of a camera about two stories above the stage that shoots down on Jeffrey’s hands on the keyboard. There is a screen going across the stage that shows his hands as he plays. “The audience gets an extra dimension that they normally would not have,” explains Jeffrey. “It adds a visual element to my program that is not available in other venues.”

Jeffrey does about 85 performances of Keyboard Conversations annually, including a series in London. He admits that when he began the program, he never intended to put his white tie and tails away, but that what’s happened. “It just simply has taken me over,” he admits. “I think Bernstein was right; it has been the most gratifying and perhaps necessary work that I can be doing.”

 

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