We talk to pianist Jeffrey Siegel about his enlightening Keyboard Conversations series, which he is bringing to London for a fifth season this October.
What format do your Keyboard Conversations take?
I always like to stress that these are not lectures with musical examples, but concerts with commentary where every work on the programme is performed in full. My desire is to make the listening experience more enriched and meaningful for the avid music lover who wants more than just an ear wash of sound, as well as for somebody new to classical music. London audiences particularly have a mix of seasoned music lovers – people who may ask ‘what edition did you use of the Moonlight Sonata that you just played?’ – and those who are going to a concert for the first time. So I try to use words that are not too technical but still meaningful – I don’t talk about tonic and dominant relationships and things like that. I have always been inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s approach of talking to his audiences.
Why do you think it is important for you to talk to your audiences?
For me, it’s about reaching out to people. There are already plenty of lectures with short musical examples and fine concert pianists give fantastic recitals, but to get a concert pianist who talks about the music too makes a real difference. It’s very gratifying for me in this age where great music has become background noise to be able to get people to really listen and really appreciate the music.
How have the Keyboard Conversations evolved since they began?
It has been a slow, steady growth. But now famous actors like David Suchet and Miriam Margolyes attend the concerts. I get a lot of first-timers these days because they know it’s going to be more than just a formal concert. I think it’s still a well-kept secret in London so it’s great to be talking about them with you today.
You chose Gershwin for the series' fifth anniversary season in London – what is your relationship with Gershwin’s music?
I have played a lot of Gershwin. I recorded the complete works for piano and orchestra with Leonard Slatkin, a good friend of mine, years ago. Rhapsody in Blue is a very ‘American’ piece of music of course. It’s of its time – the Jazz Age – and yet, like any great piece of music, it transcends time. It’s often criticised for being disjointed and episodic so I’m going to take some time to show how magnificently Gershwin put it together. Audiences are going to be hearing the solo piano version too, which is very rarely played.
Could the solo transcription of Rhapsody in Blue ever really compare to the original with its iconic clarinet opening, blaring brass and syncopated percussion?
Somebody once said that hearing the solo piano version of Rhapsody in Blue is like seeing a film that you’ve already experienced in glorious colour in black and white. There are certain moments of clarity that come through with the black and white version but you lose the marvelous colour of the jazz band. In the piano version we can concentrate on the musical material and the piece’s structure.
You’re also performing Copland’s The Cat and The Mouse…
Yes, The Cat and The Mouse was Copland’s first published composition. He wrote it as a teenager and it’s a very humorous piece. I won’t give the story away here – you’ll have to come to my performance on 5 October to find out more – but it’s an absolutely charming piece. I had the privilege of being a soloist for Copland performing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1970s. So there’s a connection between Copland and me and Gershwin.
Tell me about the Bernstein piece on your programme.
Humphrey Burton, who was Bernstein’s video producer for many years, found out about my Keyboard Conversations and how much they were inspired by Bernstein. When he was in New York doing research for his Bernstein biography he asked to meet me and at the end of the lunch said very casually, ‘You know, Jeffrey, I have a photocopy of an unpublished piano piece of Lennie’s. Would you like it?’ Of course I said yes. It’s a very tender, charming little piece called Meditation on a Wedding, written as a private wedding gift. This will be its London premiere.
What will your next programme feature?
I am looking forward to a programme of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov called ‘Russian Rapture’. With Tchaikovsky, it comes as a shock, even a professional, to know that he wrote over 100 piano pieces that you rarely hear. And we hear the concertos of Rachmaninov all the time, but the solo piano music remains far less known.
How do you find Kings Place as a venue?
Kings Place (below) is an absolutely perfect place to listen to music. The hall has the intimacy of a drawing room and the marvellous acoustics of a magnificent concert hall. I do Keyboard Conversations now in 21 different cities and Kings Place is one of my favourite venues because the audience really feels part of the whole thing.