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Jeffrey Siegel and Keyboard Conversations

Pianist Jeffrey Siegel has hit on a formula for lasting success that at the same time makes him quite unlike any other well-known recitalist: He tells the audience what he's going to do, explaining to them through words and musical examples each work on his program before playing the piece. He calls these programs "Keyboard Conversations," and they have won him a dedicated, responsive and growing following all over the country.

This year in Madison, for example, Siegel has doubled his appearances, presenting each of his four programs at the Civic Center twice, on two successive evenings. I attended the first two "Keyboard Conversations" to get an idea of Siegel as a pianist and as a musician. (The third, called "Music for Lovers," will be presented on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 16 and 17.)

All over the country, live performance of classical music is threatened by rising costs, parking and other central-city problems, and above all by a certain audience apathy that tends not to appreciate how much more alive and exciting the whole musical experience can be, compared to highly edited note-perfect recordings, when the audience and the performer actively collaborate in real time. Siegel is bucking these trends head-on, with considerable success, revealing by force of example how the listeners, the performer and the music itself can interact for the enrichment of all concerned. This is by no means a simple task.

The 53-year-old Siegel is a Midwesterner, raised in Chicago, where his father was a musician in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He studied with the legendary pianist and teacher Rudolf Ganz, who planted the seed that has since sprouted as "Keyboard Conversations." "Ganz told me," Siegel says, "that it was an artist's job to educate as well as to entertain."

Educating the audience is a key element of Siegel's approach, and he is clearly very committed to the idea, having now devoted more than half his life to it. Siegel developed his unique method 27 years ago in Chicago and soon carried it to St. Louis, where the series has been running for 21 years. He has gradually expanded his range, landing in Madison 12 years ago, and this year adding Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to the list. That brings the total to 17 cities, including New York, Cleveland, Washington, Atlanta, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Dallas and Denver.

For all that, "Keyboard Conversations" is only about half of Siegel's total artistic endeavor. He also plays regular, white-tie-and-tails solo recitals of the traditional kind and appears with major orchestras as a soloist and conductor, both in the United States and in Europe. Some of his interest in conducting was sparked by his Juilliard classmates Leonard Slatkin and James Levine, who are are now among the most revered American conductors. For the past 13 years, he has been the music director of the Mainly Mozart Festival in Phoenix.

But being a pianist and a soloist has been his primary activity, and the educational thrust of his regular appearances here and elsewhere remains central to his efforts. "In contrast to lecture-recitals, with their more formal demeanor and lack of direct audience involvement," Siegel says, "a 'Keyboard Conversation' is relaxed and informal and seeks to heighten the listening experience that is to come in the performance itself."

I can certainly attest that this method works, and works well. Siegel is very serious in his manner on stage, but -- perhaps an aspect of his Midwestern roots -- also friendly and relaxed. He does not talk down to the audience, but neither does he overwhelm them with extended formal analysis of the music or with abstruse technical or philosophical language.

In Madison, at least, the venue itself helps: The small platform of the Civic Center's Isthmus Playhouse is surrounded by seating on three sides, contributing to intimacy and close physical contact between Siegel and his audience. After the opening bows, he generally stands, leaning back against the cheek of the piano and explaining what is about to take place. He will talk a little about each piece generally, setting it in its historical context, for instance, then sit at the piano and give some musical illustrations that display major structural or expressive elements in the work. Having thus set the scene for each work, Siegel then performs it. At the end of the program he fields audience questions.

Though it all appears very spontaneous, everything but the question-and-answer period is in fact tightly scripted. "The guiding light for me," Siegel says, "was Leonard Bernstein. He brought listeners inside the music, not by giving a lecture but by perking up their ears."

While Siegel was developing his own methods, there was a lot of trial and error in figuring out what would work or not work. "When I was at Juilliard, four students would go out to some club or to the shore and give short programs. There were no printed programs, so we had to provide a program orally. We quickly learned not to say anything that didn't need to be said."

In addition to the obvious fact that his recipe works and thus supports him and his family, Siegel is truly dedicated to developing new fans for live performances and to helping listeners become an active ingredient in the enjoyment of great music. "As wonderful as recordings are," he says, "they foster a certain passivity; the listener doesn't have to become an active participant in the marvels of each moment of the music. By attending these concerts, the audience not only learns about the music and the individual works, but enters into a creative relationship with the music."

Siegel believes that "every nook and cranny of our lives is filled with a wash of sound." Our immersion in virtually ubiquitous background music dulls our perceptions, to the point where the sound is taken for granted and does not really get our attention. What Siegel tries to do is make the musical experience a living thing, to show his audience that work by a whole range of composers is a humanizing influence for us all.

"I work out very carefully in advance what I'm going to say," he notes, "being attentive to the order both of the individual pieces and to the different sections of each piece. I consider that the audience has entrusted me with their time and attention, so I make certain that the examples I use will prepare their minds and ears to receive as fully as possible what the music offers."

Each of Siegel's four programs for Madison this season has a specific theme, and it's within these themes that he ties together sometimes quite disparate musical elements. In October's "The Mystic and the Macabre," somewhat demonic undertones were represented by Scriabin's Sonata No. 9" ("The Black Mass"), Liszt's Mephisto Waltz and "Scarbo" from Ravel's suite Gaspard de la nuit. Death appeared as the eerily evocative, bell-like image of a condemned man swinging on the noose in "Le gibet" from the same Ravel suite. To serve as a counterpoise to these darkly dramatic musical images, Siegel offered the serenely contemplative Benediction of God in Solitude by Liszt, arguably the greatest of that master's many works for piano.

One feature of this particular program was that with the possible exception of "Le gibet," all of the works were of supreme technical difficulty, literally at the edge of what even the greatest masters of the instrument can manage to get beneath their fingers. Before I ever heard Siegel play a note I looked at this program and thought to myself, "Well, the fellow has guts, no matter what else. This is clearly impossible!" Siegel is a considerable pianist, but he is not in the absolutely top tier of piano virtuosos. And indeed, in Scarbo and the Mephisto Waltz he glossed over quite a few of the notes between the main notes, so to speak.

I think this raises a significant critical issue. Had that program been a traditional formal solo recital, I would have come away from with the feeling that Siegel had substantially overreached his abilities as a keyboard player, and could have achieved more by attempting less.

I had significant reservations after hearing the November program too, although in a different way: In "Mozart and Friends?," getting the notes themselves was not so much at issue as was getting as deeply as possible into the expressive opportunities presented by the scores of Mozart, Clementi and Haydn. Siegel remained closer to the outer surface of the music than I would have liked, missing an element of transport.

To be sure, much of Siegel's playing was beautiful, and there is no doubt that he is a well-trained, highly adept and very musical person. I greatly respect both his efforts and his attainments. But this esteem rests not so much on the playing itself as on the larger musical context in which Siegel is working.

It also occurred to me that Siegel's programming concepts for "Keyboard Conversations" might well differ from those he would employ in the traditional recital setting. The more formal concert conditions create a certain buffer zone between the soloist and the audience, and within that relative isolation, a musician can more readily achieve a kind of focused concentration that supports a deeper dive into the essence of a score, as well as a technical effort unbroken by any kind of interruption of the music's flow. I think this difference is part of understanding what makes Siegel's "Keyboard Conversations" unique.

"Paradoxically," Siegel observes, "music does not need anybody to say anything about it." This is a key truth: Music is itself, a complete and self-contained universe, and not directly translatable into other idioms like words. Yet to become a shared experience and a cultural and social enterprise, there must be a basic common understanding of what is taking place. It is precisely that common understanding that "Keyboard Conversations" fosters and promotes, and therein lie the considerable virtues of the concept.

I think it matters less whether we have all the notes or the most profound imaginable expressive content, as long as what results can fairly be called enrichment for an audience and growth for a cultural community. And Siegel has beyond any question struck a sympathetic chord in the Madison area. His audiences are fully engaged in what he's doing. They pay close attention to both the commentaries and the performances, they render warm and prolonged applause and they ask very good questions at the end.

"Of course it's flattering to sell out all the available seats," Siegel told me, "but I was not pleased by having people turned away who wanted to come to these concerts. It was good luck that the series could be expanded, adding Tuesday evenings to the Monday programs." In fact the total audience seems very nearly to have doubled in one stroke, as the house was pretty full for the two Tuesday evening programs I heard.

It's probably an important element of Siegel's success that he's a fairly down-home sort of person -- perhaps yet another trace of that Midwestern character, though he now lives in New York with his wife, Laura, and two children. "Maybe music is filling up too much of my life," he speculates, "because I now have to spend more and more time away from home, for instance with six international tours, to Europe, South America and Japan, in addition to everything else."

Be that as it may, Siegel seems genuinely dedicated to enlarging the audience for live performances, and there's little doubt that at least in our community he's doing a first-rate job of it.

Isthmus, January, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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