For more than 20 years, pianist Jeffrey Siegel has brought classical music with a twist to Fairfax audiences, drawing in music lovers young and old with his mix of performance and discourse.
Siegel returns to George Mason University with his Keyboard Conversations series for the third time this season, focusing on the works of Frédéric Chopin for his March 30 performance. His signature program combines both familiar and lesser known works by famous composers with explanations between the works and a question and answer session at the end of the night. This “concert with commentary” creates an enriching experience for music fans as well as making classical music accessible to those new to the genre.
“The audiences in every city, they are a mixture of not only all different types of listeners, but all ages,” he said. “I have senior citizens discovering classical music, and I have the 9-year-old music students.”
The series of Keyboard Conversations are not just a lecture, comedy program or regular concert. Siegel hopes that by incorporating a light, humorous commentary and facts about the composer with works performed in their entirety, audiences come away with a more complete concert experience. The method seems successful. Siegel brings the series to concert halls around the globe and has brought Keyboard Conversations to Northwestern University in Chicago for nearly 45 years. Today, he brings his series four times a year to 22 places, including George Mason University.
In the program’s early days, the pianist used to perform white tie and tails concerts throughout the year, appearing as a soloist with groups including the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, Siegel saw demand for the Keyboard Conversations increase, leaving less time for other performances.
“I’ve come to a point where Keyboard Conversations is the most worthwhile of my musical endeavors,” he said. “The need for these programs and the appreciation of them has simply grown in the more than 40 years I’ve been doing them.”
Because he visits the same places multiple times throughout the year, Siegel varies the four programs within a series to make sure audiences are experiencing a variety of composers and periods in history. His previous shows this season in Fairfax have included popular works by American composers as well as Beethoven, and he will return in April with a program focusing on the women who inspire the romantic compositions of Brahms, Schumann and Liszt. Siegel feels Sunday’s performance will feel familiar to the audience, even those who have not realized they’ve heard Chopin’s work before.
“It’s hard for me to think of a composer whose music is more immediately accessible to a greater number of people than Chopin,” Siegel said. “It’s one of the reasons why so many of his melodies have been used in films and advertisements. He had that ability to write music to draw listeners in, and I think it will be a joy for those who hear this program.”
One of the key components of the Keyboard Conversations is the Q&A following the program, where audience members can ask questions about anything, from how many hours a day Siegel practices to the edition of a certain piece he used. By facilitating a conversation with the audience, both through the closing session and the running commentary throughout the program, Siegel hopes to elicit thought and feeling from a modern tech-centered audience.
“We are a much more impersonal, robotic society now than we were when I first started doing these programs,” he said. “Keyboard Conversations is far greater now than when I started because of the changes in our culture within the last half century, and the fact that the audiences at George Mason University keep growing is indicative of this. It offers something unique that touches them, that’s more meaningful than anything they would get from a computer.”