In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.
Jeffrey Siegel was a student of Rudolf Ganz in Chicago and Rosinna Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. The distinguished American pianist has been featured with the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and many others. His series of 'Keyboard Conversations' has been ongoing for over thirty years, and in 2013, will continue in London for a third consecutive season. Tomorrow evening, he performs at the Montalvo Arts Center (tickets) in northern California. Below is a transcript of our recent conversation with Jeffrey Siegel.
EH: Mr. Siegel, you studied with the great Swiss pianist and conductor, Rudolf Ganz. I’ve heard stories about his piano studio: did Ganz often speak about his meetings with the great composers, many of whom he knew personally ?
Siegel: It’s interesting that you mention that. One of the programs that I’m doing this season is an all-Debussy program that I call Clair de Lune: Fireworks and More. It’s not just because this recently passed calendar year was the 150th birthday of Debussy – one does not need an excuse to revel in his music – but it’s some of the greatest, most beautiful music that’s ever been composed. I had the pleasure when I was very young in Chicago (I was thirteen or fourteen at the time and Ganz was in his early eighties) of studying a lot of Debussy’s music with him. And in the studio that you’re referring to was a letter from Debussy (under glass, of course) thanking Rudolf Ganz for playing his music with such stylistic insight. Now there is a definite style and an approach to the keyboard music of Debussy that is quite specialized, and I felt privileged to have studied this particular repertoire with a man who played Debussy’s works before they were fashionable to be played in public, a man who had a letter from the composer thanking him not only for playing them, but for playing them with stylistic understanding. I’m hoping that what Ganz taught me is something evident in my performances and discussions of these piano works.
EH: Ganz was greatly admired by many musicians of his time and even earned the praise of Busoni. What in particular stood out about Ganz’ ideas on music-making and piano technique, which he clearly had in abundance ?
Siegel: Ganz had a way of looking at a music that was beyond that of just a pianist. He was a conductor, and more importantly, a composer himself. When he looked at a piece of music, there was no period of music – from Bach to the moderns – that was foreign to him. He had this enormous stylistic insight, and he once said to me (before I really understand what he meant), “it is the job of the artist to educate as well as to entertain”. When he told me this, it was just ‘putting the seed in’, so to speak. But as I started later in life to do Keyboard Conversations - which are concerts with commentary and not lectures about music - the idea of education in a broad sense, making the listening experience more than an ear-wash of sound, made me think back to what Ganz said to me. What he meant by ‘educate’, I think, was also innovative programming. He didn’t play just the fifteen favorite piano pieces of everyone. He shared with the audience things that were of real musical value, pieces that were somewhat off the beaten track. And indeed, the California program coming up, Gershwin and Friends, mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar.
EH: As an aside, did you ever study Ravel’s Scarbo with Ganz (to whom the work is dedicated) ?
Siegel: Ganz actually took a certain pride in Scarbo, which is easily one of the most difficult works to play in the repertoire, that it was dedicated to him as a virtuoso. He said about Ravel what everybody who played for Ravel has said: Ravel confidently said, ‘Don’t interpret me please, just play exactly what’s written,’ – which is also what Stravinsky would say. He didn’t want any artistic interjections.
EH: What are your thoughts on piano competitions and the sound of this generation ?
Siegel: I like to quote Béla Bartók on this matter, that “competitions are for horses, not for pianists”. My teacher, Rosinna Lhevinne felt, above all, that the piano needed to be treated as a singing instrument, that the hardest thing to do on a percussive instrument is to give the illusion that the melody is singing, and that the sound is floating in places. If there is one generalization about her teaching - from people who worked with her for a certain period of time - I think it’s that they treat the piano like a singing instrument. In terms of the individuality, there are so many marvelous pianists who studied with her that they maintained their individual music-making. This is something that Jimmy Lhevinne (conductor of the MET Opera and Boston Symphony) - whom I first knew as a fellow piano student in the early 1960s – has often said about Lhevinne. The comment that he made then and since is that so many of her students played with beautiful sound and wonderful technical facility, but musically, none of them sound like copies of one another.
EH: About your January 19 program in Northern California, I’m curious to know what your thoughts are about Edward MacDowell, a student of Liszt and the foremost American composer before the turn of the century. And please feel free to describe the rest of the program.
Siegel: In a way, this wonderful question also refers to Rudolf Ganz. Ganz had an enormous respect for MacDowell, and he actually did teach some of his students the big piano sonatas of MacDowell. He did teach to me the Second Piano Concerto, which I’ve performed many, many times in my life – the last time with the orchestra in Munich with Leonard Slatkin conducting. I have on the program his best-known single piece, To A Wild Rose, which I think captures the era that you’re talking about – the pre-WWI, innocent era in America. It’s a lovely piece and I share with the audience that this piece almost did not exist.
The whole theme of the Gershwin and Friends program is this: Which American composers inspired Gershwin, and which American composers were inspired by Gershwin. So we have a work by the first internationally recognized American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. We’re going to have a stunning virtuoso piece of his called The Union, which is a patriotic paraphrase that Gottschalk wrote as a Southerner during the Civil War, where his sympathies were with the North. He extemporizes in a virtuosic manner on three well-known American tunes: Yankee Doodle, Hail Columbia, and The Star-Spangled Banner. Both Gottschalk and MacDowell were the American composers that inspired Gershwin.
Gershwin has always been a composer very close to my heart, maybe because I played quite a bit of jazz as a youth in Chicago. In Gershwin’s music, as it’s been said many times, it’s like he had one foot in the jazz hall and the other in the concert hall, and I think this is the right way to approach Rhapsody in Blue. What we’re going to hear is this very, very familiar piece of music but in a very unfamiliar way. As you know, Gershwin wrote the piece for the piano and jazz band, but it’s always heard with piano and orchestra. What’s not usually known is that a year after the premiere, Gershwin made a solo-transcription of the piece so that he could play it all by himself. He incorporated - into the very virtuosic solo piano part - the orchestra part, which makes it a very complex score for the pianist to play. Rhapsody in Blue is frequently criticized as an episodic, unrelated hodgepodge of musical events. It’s always seemed to me that it’s a much better composed piece of music than that.
Meditation on a Wedding by Leonard Bernstein was a private gift to friends of his who were getting married. To the best of my knowledge, the manuscript has never been published. I was given a photocopy of it by Bernstein’s celebrated biographer, Humphrey Burton, and received permission from the Bernstein estate to be the pianist to give the performance of the piece. It is delightful, very tender piece of music.
EH: With arts funding being cut all over the world, how would you convince or explain the importance of performance art ?
Siegel: We are living today, it seems to me, in the most impersonal, robotic, computerized age there has ever been. Great music and what it has to offer - thinking, feeling, and sensitivy - is more necessary than it’s ever been before. I don’t think people like being treated like automatons. I think great music is an expression in tones of an infinite range of human emotion and thought, and it’s in this age that it’s more necessary and meaningful than ever before. I think it’s a greater challenge for all arts organizations and arts presenters to keep their doors open, to offer the public something more than a computer program.
EH: What are your thoughts on the future of classical music ? In your opinion, will we ever return to the age of the great composers ?
Siegel: History teaches us to be very careful about making any predictions on the music of our time and whether it is destined to last in the future. When Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750, no one thought his music would survive. He was considered old-fashioned and two of his sons (Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian) were actually more famous than he was. No one ever thought his music would one day rank him as one of the greatest composers of all time. There have been many composers who were tremendously popular in their own time, but their popularity was not sustained from one generation to the next. So any study of music history teaches us to be very careful. I remember when Samuel Barber died in 1981 – and I was privileged to know him and play some of his works - he was also considered old-fashioned. He was writing tonal music and people said his music would not be played in the future, etc. Of course, Rachmaninoff is a great case. His contemporaries were Bartok, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and his language was of the 19th century; no one thought his music would last. And yet, his music is played more than ever before.
EH: Mr. Siegel, thank you for speaking with us.
Siegel: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
Tickets and information about the Montalvo Arts concert can be found here.