Having performed as a soloist with great orchestras in what he terms a ‘white-tie-and-tails’ career, pianist and steinway artist Jeffrey Siegel long ago launched ‘Keyboard Conversations,’ a recital-and-commentary program with remarks that precede performances of masterpieces of the piano literature. “We have nearly become automatons with our cell phones now,” says Siegel, “and I think the need for what music can really offer, what Leonard Bernstein used to call ‘the transformative power,’ of music, is even more necessary today than when I started doing these programs nearly a half century ago. Because of the changes in our society, we need great music more than ever now — to be moved by it to be affected by what music can offer.” I spoke to Jeffrey Siegel about his long-running series, which takes him throughout the United States.
I appreciate the approach of your ‘Keyboard Conversations’ series. As someone who has been writing about music for fifteen years, I of course believe that music with context is always so much more of an experience than music without it — and that context can take forms beyond an academic program note.
One of the joys for me in doing these programs is exactly that. I feel it enriches the listening experience, both for the avid music lover, who has heard, say, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata his whole life, while giving the novice listener a gentle introduction to the work to provide an inviting and accessible first-time listening experience. It makes the joy of music much more meaningful to more people. And this is coming from a musician who would be the first to defend the principle that music doesn’t need anybody to say anything about it: music speaks very well for itself. I don’t know if you were familiar with Leonard Bernstein’s —
Sure! Were his lectures an inspiration for you?
Certainly. And what I do is a concert, a piano recital with prefatory commentary, rather than a lecture about music. As you know, Bernstein’s hundredth birthday is coming up and there is a lot of attention being paid worldwide to Leonard Bernstein the composer. I’ll be doing a program called ‘Celebrating Leonard Bernstein.’ I learned a lot from him, particularly making listening to music a more involved experience for the listener and how to do this: to stay away from words like ‘tonic’ and ‘dominant’, ‘major’ and ‘minor’, to avoid using off-putting terminology, to take a listener inside music and say meaningful things without throwing a lot of technical jargon around. It shouldn’t necessarily be what you feel about the piece, but rather what to listen for as you hear the piece and marvel. It’s about how a composer put the piece together, and how well it can sound on a steinway!
You have been doing the ‘Keyboard Conversations’ for decades. I see that in Chicago, for instance, you will be celebrating the forty-ninth year of the series!
The piano literature is of course so rich, it’s not difficult to put four different programs together every year for forty-nine years!
‘Sometimes there’s a blasé attitude
to the chestnuts of the piano literature.’
I understand you have a special program that you perform at steinway showrooms and dealerships!
Certainly! I put a program together called ‘The Sumptuous Sound of a steinway,’ which shows off the range and the color of a steinway. It has everything from the subtlety of the Claire de lune of Debussy; to the C-sharp Minor Prelude of Rachmaninoff, for its big, powerful sonority; to Mussorgsky’s virtuosic Flight of the Bumblebee, to show how the magnificent, even action of a steinway makes it possible to play rapid compositions where you don’t feel difference in the weight of keys from one to the next. There was one city I went to where I was told within three days of my visit that they sold three steinways! And I’m always happy to do it if I can find the time. I’m a proud steinway artist for nearly fifty years now. And the program demonstrates why the steinway is the greatest piano in the world: by simply letting people hear it in action, played by a professional, with music specially chosen to demonstrate its full capability.
In one of your videos, an audience member asks ‘How long did it take to prepare this program?’ I love your honest answer: ‘All my life.’ And that’s the truth, whether it is spent practicing scales, or researching the music you play, learning, for example that Rachmaninoff ultimately grew to hate his aforementioned Prelude in C-sharp Minor!
It’s such a humanizing story — to realize that Rachmaninoff was a teenager when he wrote the piece at the Moscow Conservatory, a piece which became his calling card and he grew to hate it, and he had to play it all of his life, everywhere. Why did he come to hate it? That’s a human-interest story! I’ll use that in ‘Keyboard Conversations.’ Of course, you can also say ‘Beethoven used these three notes to write this piece, and look, they show up again here!’ There’s no one way to approach a piece of music — or a program. The vast treasure trove of the piano literature has made ‘Keyboard Conversations’ so enduring.
Sometimes there’s a blasé attitude to the chestnuts of the piano literature. ‘Yes, I’ve heard this Nocturne of Chopin so often and I know it so well.’ When you really look at it and realize the mastery and the imagination within.... To return to the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Beethoven knew he was writing something unusual and exceptional, even for him. So what was going on, in the piece and in Beethoven’s life, to make this work so remarkable within his oeuvre? To answer those questions gives us renewed appreciation for and excitement toward this old chestnut, while giving the first-time listener an introductory experience. That’s the goal.
To learn more and for concert inquiries, visit keyboardconversations.com.