Conversations at the Keyboard

Not long before Leonard Bernstein died, in 1988, the ebullient conductor and composer approached pianist Jeffrey Siegel backstage at Lincoln Center. His business was urgent. He wanted to discuss Siegel’s “keyboard conversations,” concerts with commentary pioneered by Siegel and based on Bernstein’s TV performances of the 1950s and 1960s.

Purists had raised eyebrows about the conversations, contending that a musician should not speak onstage. But Bernstein believed that they could help counter the prevailing apathy toward classical music.

“The last thing he ever said to me was, ‘Never diminish the number of keyboard conversations. It’s the most important work you are doing,'” says Siegel, who took heed.

During half the year, he is a typical concert pianist, playing Mozart or Brahms in a white tie and tails. During the other half, he performs dozens of keyboard conversations in 17 cities, a format he first developed for a community outreach program while studying at Juilliard 30 years ago. It’s nothing like the zany antics of P.D.Q. Bach, he insists. The conversations are part conventional recital, part music appreciation class. Before performing each piece, Siegel discusses the work at hand, plays excerpts to illustrate musical themes and offers tidbits of history. For example, he will tell his audience that Beethoven wrote his mighty “Appassionata” Sonata at the time of his encroaching deafness.

When Siegel appears at the Skirball Cultural Center this week, to benefit the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic, the topic will be the Jewish-American composers George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Bernstein. Siegel will reveal what makes Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” sound bluesy; how Copland suggests a chase in “The Cat and the Mouse”; why the composers are not Jewish artists, but artists who happened to be Jewish.

“It is more difficult for me to perform and speak in the same concert,” Siegel says. “But it makes the concert so much more meaningful for the listener. It allows people to feel like musical ‘insiders,’ to experience more than just a pleasant wash of sound.”

For information on the concert — Oct. 25, 8 p.m., followed by dessert and champagne — call (626) 799-4167.