Jeffrey Siegel makes no bones about it: he based Keyboard Conversations, his long-running series that combines classical concerts with music education to create what he calls an audience of “active listeners,” on Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. In fact, the two even spoke about the legendary conductor’s success with the concerts, which were broadcast on CBS from 1958 to 1972, and which Bernstein used as a springboard to introduce even more audience education opportunities during his time with the New York Philharmonic.
“He said, ‘I know where you got this idea,’ Siegel recalls. “He knew about my conversations, and he was complimentary of my approach — he said it is the artist’s job to educate as well as entertain.”
Siegel seems to have followed this maxim to great success: When he returns to the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center on Feb. 3 to perform and talk about the music, life and influence of Frédéric Chopin, it will mark the ninth consecutive year he has brought his three-concert series to Philadelphia.
The 71-year-old Juilliard graduate has been performing the dual role of educator and artist for more than half his life — Keyboard Conversations in his native Chicago have been going on for 44 years and counting. In addition to Philadelphia, he brings his program to 20 other cities around the United States each year.
Siegel explains that the secret to his long-lived success is simple: He gears his programs to people who want to “make their listening experience more meaningful, more enriching than an ‘ear wash’ of sound. They are looking for an experience that goes beyond just sitting there — they want to get more out of” both live and recorded music.
The pianist, who has performed as a soloist with orchestras around the world, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, says that there is perhaps no one better at making an instantly meaningful musical connection with an audience than Chopin, the 19th-century Polish composer.
“There is no composer whose music is more immediately accessible to everyone than Chopin,” Siegel enthuses. “There is something about his melodic wealth and deep-feeling music — whether it’s dreamy or angry, the music is always conveying a wide set of deeply felt emotions, from joyous exultations to the pits of despair. He communicates this in a musical language that is immediately comprehensible to everyone, the novice and the expert.”
This last point is an important one for Siegel. He takes great pains to make his programs as egalitarian as possible, appealing to audiophile and neophyte alike. He says he achieves this goal by eschewing technical jargon. “My job is not to throw a lot of facts and terms at the audience, but to bring them into the musical experience, to make it richer for them. What can I play that can heighten their attention and appreciation for the work?”
As an example, he talks about his selection of one of Chopin’s most famous pieces, the Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53. The piece’s familiarity to many audience members will allow him to explore it in-depth, he says. “What is Chopin doing compositionally that makes it so effective? What inspired him to write a Polonaise?
“He was a very proud, patriotic Polish person,” Siegel continues. “The Polonaise had extra meaning for him: It represented the heroism, the inner strength, the tragedy of his native country.”
Another reason the composer is perfect for a concert involving multiple explanations and insights is that virtually his entire output consists of relatively short compositions like impromptus, etudes and scherzos.
Siegel’s enthusiasm for helping people become more engaged in the music has made him a lot of friends in Philadelphia. That’s not just hyperbole — when the Kimmel Center announced that, due to funding gaps, his 2011 series would be his last, a group of devoted followers formed the nonprofit Friends of Keyboard Conversations to raise the funds necessary to bring him back. Thanks to their efforts, and the assistance of Kimmel Center President and CEO Anne Ewers, the conversations have continued uninterrupted.
Now that is an example of active listeners.
IF YOU GO
Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel
Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.
at the Kimmel Center
300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia