Photo Credit: Peter Schaaf

By Paul Freeman [January 2013 Interview]

Are you aware of the pressures George Gershwin faced while he was creating “Rhapsody in Blue”? Understanding the context in which great compositions were written expands the listeners’ appreciation of the piece. Pianist Jeffrey Siegel, with his renowned Keyboard Conversations, gives audiences the colorful stories behind the music he performs.

“I would be the first one to say it’s not necessary for anybody to talk about music. Music speaks perfectly well for itself. However, my hope is that whatever I say before I sit down to play the piece straight through, will make the listening experience more focused and more enriched and also more accessible and attractive and inviting for somebody who might be hearing that piece for the first time or even attending his first classical music concert.”

Siegel, who lives in New York City with his wife (their two children are grown) immediately points out that Keyboard Conversations are not lectures with musical examples. They’re concerts with prefatory commentary. Each composition is performed in its entirety.

“In all the cities where I do Keyboard Conversations as ongoing series, the audience is a mixture of very avid music lovers, who may be hearing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for the 100th time, but also people who have never heard it before. And it’s also a mixture of all ages, from senior citizens to kids. So I try to scale what I say, the language that I use, so that I don’t bore the experts and I don’t lose the novice.”

Many novices quickly become classical music aficionados after attending a Siegel concert. “That’s one of the most gratifying aspects of my career. I did an all-Beethoven program last season and an 11-year-old boy took the time to come backstage and meet with me afterward and he said to me, with great amazement, ‘Hey, Mr. Siegel, Beethoven’s not all that bad!’”

Siegel is currently putting the spotlight on George Gershwin and friends. We spoke with him prior to his January 19th concert at Saratoga, California’s Montalvo Arts Center (

Siegel emphasizes that this particular program is ideal for families. Aaron Copland’s amusing “Cat and the Mouse” is one of the pieces. It also includes a rarely heard, solo piano version of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Gershwin created so he could play the work without an orchestra or jazz band joining him.

“It’s a familiar piece, but presented in an unfamiliar way,” Siegel says. “It’s interesting to hear a piece of music in this way, in the arrangement that Gershwin made for himself to play, where everything is in the piano part. The orchestra and the piano part are combined. What I think is going to be of great interest for the audience is that ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is very often considered a badly composed piece of music, a hodgepodge of unrelated musical events, sectionalized, episodic, that does not hang together. I’ve always felt that it’s a much better composed piece of music than that and that Gershwin has actually composed it with great care, so that it’s not a bunch of unrelated episodes. And I do take a moment, before playing the piece, to show a few examples of this, so that the audience can appreciate, not only how wonderful the music is to listen to, but how masterfully Gershwin has actually put it all together, how well the work is composed.

“And we’re going to hear some short pieces by Gershwin that are very much off the beaten track, that might even be first-hearings for most of the people in the audience. What’s fantastic about Gershwin, when all’s said and done, are these memorable melodies and the infectious, exciting, syncopated, jazzy rhythms. The music sounds so American.”

The program also includes music of composers who inspired Gershwin - Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Scott Joplin and Edward MacDowell, for example. There will also be composers whom Gershwin inspired, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. “So it’s an interesting program, in that we have this kind of mixture of American works,” Siegel says.

The evening will feature the local premiere of the unpublished Bernstein composition, “Meditation on a Wedding.”

“It’s a very simple, very beautiful piece. I am very privileged to have the permission of the Bernstein estate to be able to play it. And how I came to have this piece of music and the permission to play it is something I’ll share with the audience. It’s a big deal, the premiere of an unpublished Leonard Bernstein piece.”

Siegel knew Bernstein personally. Throughout his career, Bernstein pursued what he called his “educational mission,” epitomized by his Young People’s Concerts.

“He was very much the guiding light, for a concert musician like myself, to also talk briefly at a concert, to make the listening experience more than what he called ‘an earwash.’”

Siegel recalls the last time he saw Bernstein. “It was in November of ‘88. It was just the two of us in a room in Lincoln Center, talking about how to talk about music. It was about the Keyboard Conversations.’”

Bernstein was pleased that Siegel was carrying on the tradition. “We both agreed that it’s very difficult to talk about music. And musicians, generally speaking, are the worst ones to do it, because we’re trained to communicate in tones, not words about tones. That’s a whole other discipline. There are wonderful lecturers about music, who don’t play. And fabulous pianists who don’t speak. So it’s a real challenge to do this. And the years of experience that I’ve had doing this have been very important to me. We agreed that his model is the way to do it.”

Part of the challenge is reaching both the classical buff and the newcomer. “It’s a matter of not using technical language, but still saying something of substance that opens the ear and heightens the appreciation for the listener as he hears the piece of music. So the listener, whatever his age, whatever his listening experience, will feel that he or she is on the inside track, as they’re hearing that piece of music unfold. What you say about the music should be something beyond what would be written in program notes.”

Siegel began playing piano at age five and, at 15, made his debut as a soloist with his hometown Chicago Symphony. He has played a lot of what he refers to as “white tie and tails” concerts, in which he performs without informational interludes. Siegel has been a soloist with many of the world’s greatest orchestras.

“But I’ve always felt that I could make the listening experience richer for the audience, rather than just sitting down, playing in the formal concert, bowing and leaving, if I could say something about the music that would enhance their listening experience. It’s something I sensed long ago. But how to do it, what to say, how to say it, how much to say, what musical examples to play out of context, all this is a real challenge. And having Bernstein as the guiding light was fine, but I had to find my own way with the specific works in the piano repertoire.”

There is a Q&A at the conclusion of the evening. “That’s a very important part of the Keyboard Conversations. I get a whole array of questions, from ‘What edition of that Beethoven sonata did you use?’ to ‘How many hours a day do you practice?’ and ‘Did your mother make you study?’ It breaks down that supposed wall that the audience can often perceive as being between the person on stage and themselves. We’re all there to have our lives enriched by great music. That’s the whole point of this.”

After the concert, attendees may purchase his “Keyboard Conversations” DVD (from his PBS special) and his “An American Salute” CD. Siegel will be glad to sign them.

His rapport with the audience breaks down that daunting misconception that classical music is only for the elite. “There are a lot of people who know they’re missing something not to have Gershwin or Mozart in their life. But they never have been to a concert. They may have had no music education in school. But they know they’re missing something special. They’re looking for what Bernstein called ‘a gentle inoculation’ into the joys of listening to classical music. At this time in my life, I find that the Keyboard Conversations are the most gratifying work that I do, the most important, worthwhile and perhaps necessary concerts that I’m doing. I look forward to, without overwhelming them with a lot of verbiage, sharing with the listener what I have found so fascinating about these pieces of music. What are the ingredients, how did the composer cook it up? What of relevance was going on in the composer’s life at the time?”

Siegel views music as being potentially a vital part of everyone’s life. “I feel we are living today in the most robotic, impersonal, computerized age that has ever been. I’m no Pollyanna, but I’m of the belief that, for the sensitive, thinking human being, great music is more necessary now than it’s ever been before, certainly than at any time in my life. And the challenge is to bring to the listener the gift of great music.”

For more about Jeffrey Siegel and his latest Keyboard Conversations dates, visit