Jeffrey Siegel brings his ‘Keyboard Conversations’ to The Wallis
Sometimes, a stranger’s chance remarks can redirect and enhance a career. Pianist Jeffrey Siegel still recalls a woman at a party many years ago, who said, after one of his concerts, “I know I’m missing something not to have great composers in my life. What can you do to make the listening experience more than just an ear wash of sound for me?”
The question triggered “Keyboard Conversations,” a trademarked concert-with-commentary series, including a Q-and-A session, which Siegel developed and has since taken to 22 American cities. The pianist also gives three programs every year at Kings Place in London. Siegel has given 90 “conversations” this season alone.
“The series has taken over my life,” Siegel, 72, said by phone from his home in New York. “When the woman asked me that question, I thought it probably represented 95 percent of concertgoers. One of the goals of each program is to heighten the listener’s musical experience. I have to be careful not to bore the expert or lose the novice.”
When the pianist brings his program, “The Romantic Music of Chopin,” to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on Jan. 17, he will include his commentary on and performance of such demanding masterpieces as Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” and “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”
“This is not a master class,” Siegel said. “It’s about going beyond the program notes for avid music lovers and novices of all ages who want to become more active listeners.”
The pianist’s well-organized, eloquent commentary employs a good dose of humor. In his conversation on “The Glory of Beethoven,” for instance, Siegel explains that the composer’s well-known piano work “Fur Elise” was not a teaching piece, as it has come down to us, but actually “a love poem in sound, a private gift from Beethoven to his lady friend.” That lady’s name was Therese Malfatti, not Elise, he said, and it’s possible Beethoven had proposed to her.
As Siegel dryly observes on a YouTube segment, “For some reason, she turned him down, preferring instead a good-looking, wealthy, aristocratic landowner.”
For Siegel, knowing what inspired a score allows us to hear it differently — and better. For his upcoming Chopin program at The Wallis, Siegel said he’ll talk about the 19th-century Polish composer’s life as it directly relates to a certain piece.
“In periods of despair, Chopin could write some of his happiest music,” Siegel said. “There’s a tune in the middle of Chopin’s posthumously published ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ used for the hit pop song, ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,’ recorded by Judy Garland.”
Given the enduring quality of the score, Siegel added, “It’s a shock that Chopin never wanted it published.”
Siegel said Chopin’s music is “immediately accessible and engaging to the ear,” even when the composer’s passions are flowing. The impetus for the “Revolutionary Etude,” for example, may have been Chopin getting news while on tour that the Russians had taken over his country.
“It’s fiery, full of rage and defiance, but Chopin didn’t call it ‘revolutionary,’ ” Siegel said. “The music is about itself.”
Siegel’s impressive musical background includes studying at the Juilliard School with the famous pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne. He also was coached by the Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein. In Chicago as a kid, Siegel played jazz, which later informed his stunning recordings of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Piano Concerto in F” with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony.
Siegel also made a remarkable recording of Henri Dutilleux’s harmonically rich piano sonata, and has premiered unusual pieces such as Liszt’s technically thorny paraphrase on “Ernani,” which he discovered, and Leonard Bernstein’s tender, unpublished “Meditation on a Wedding.”
“Bernstein was my guiding light,” Siegel said. “He knew how to talk about a piece. Musicians are trained to communicate wordlessly, in tones, not in words about tones. There are few musicians who can talk about music. Bernsteins do not grow on trees. Slatkin can do it. We learned at Bernstein’s feet.”
Siegel’s past programs have included “Great Jewish Composers,” and next up is a trip to London for “Schubert in the Age of the Sound Bite.” For the pianist, Schubert summoned a special memory of being young in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.
“I was 20 years old and had just done a concert with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic when Edward G. Robinson [born Emanuel Goldenberg] walked backstage and told me how much he enjoyed it. I always liked that we were about the same size — short, dumpy Jews,” Siegel said with a laugh. “It was one of the great moments for me. Robinson said Schubert’s last piano sonata was his favorite.”
Siegel, who recently performed in concert with Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, called himself “a concert pianist who talks, rather than a lecturer who plays.” For him, the need for what great music offers a thinking, feeling person is greater today than it’s ever been.
“We’re living in an impersonal age,” Siegel said. “I am playing the greatest music that’s ever been written, and as I get older, I want to play and share it more. It never feels stale, particularly Chopin.”