For thirty-two years (beginning at Northwestern University in his hometown of Chicago), Jeffrey Siegel has been presenting Keyboard Conversations® to thousands of delighted and more fully-informed concert-goers in, currently, eighteen cities across the United States.
My first opportunity to experience his unique approach to encouraging interest and understanding in solo piano classical music came less than twenty-four hours after seeing The Pianist and hearing its star, Adrien Brody (cross-reference below), relate his experiences in preparing for a role in a film that, like Siegel’s performance, began with the music of Chopin.
The capacity crowd was delighted with the expert mix of background (“Chopin left his native land for Paris, never to return again”) details (“the pulse of the Waltz remains the same, but the right hand plays in [groups] of two, while the left plays in three”) to wry humour (“Liszt was adored by women and, like the rock idols today, had to endure their constant attentions, [beat, wistful look to audience]—lucky guy”).
The first half of this carefully scripted, well-delivered “conversation” focused on three works of Poland’s most famous son and four by the author of Scandinavia’s most famous piano concerto. The glue? What better choice but “Homage to Chopin,” where the McCallum Theater’s magnificent Steinway grand finally yielded the first of many exquisitely rung notes in the upper range. Until that point I feared that the double duty of being both animator and performer was preventing Siegel from the complete concentration required to deliver these pianistic gems on an extraordinary rather than just a “very good” plane.
From that point forward I chalked up my concerns over the slightly uneven rhythm of the opening C Minor Polonaise to both presenter and participants settling into their respective roles. The bravura presentation of Wedding Day at Troldhaugen kept the entire room engaged then delightfully fulfilled as the forewarned surprise finish was so successfully realized.
As the program moved forward after intermission, I couldn’t help but reflect on my (and many fellow listeners’) reaction to this concert, which promised to educate, entertain and move us, to that of the Indian Wells Desert Symphony (cross-reference below) just two nights earlier where the off-the-cuff banter from the podium only served to distract from the music at hand. Any maestros or concert soloists who wish to venture into “humanizing” the art by turning their events into gossipy talk shows should be required to study Siegel’s work and learn how non-musical interventions can be done with taste and style.
In many ways the Liszt group that closed the musical portion of the evening was the best work of the night. And while I could get greedy and hope for just a bit more colour on the repeated notes in the upper reaches of Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, it was a great pleasure to see and feel Siegel’s sincere love and respect for this timeless score. Then he took an important first step in the audience’s preparation for that “tuneless modern stuff” by tossing off the Bagatelle Without Tonality with wit and panache—the table was now set for a serving of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos!
Finally, the taxing Hungarian Rhapsody drew the audience to their feet—elated with such a painless and thoughtful mini-survey from this trio of romantic composers’ piano works.
Then, as is traditional at all of these events, Siegel fielded questions about his art, the upcoming music, sending everyone into the night with encouragement to “please keep listening.” With pleasure! JWR