Bienen’s ‘Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel’ celebrates 50th anniversary


Courtesy photo from David Rosenberg

Pianist Jeffrey Siegel performs. Siegel’s series “Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel” will begin its 50th season Oct. 4.

Charlotte Walsh, A&E Editor

More than 50 years ago, pianist Jeffrey Siegel was at a party in Chicago after a night performing as a soloist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During the party, a woman approached him and commented that while she enjoyed classical music, she wished her listening experience would be more than just a “pleasant ear wash of sound.”

Over the years, Siegel said he has also received many questions about classical music from people who don’t necessarily listen to classical music often and said they would want an introduction to the genre.

In 1968, he decided to address both issues at once in a program he dubbed “Keyboard Conversations.”

“There’s the avid music lover who wants his or her music experience to be enriched, but there’s also the novice who knows they’re missing something great in life not to have classical music,” Siegel said. “The program was developed for both these listeners.”

“Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel” will mark its 50th year of music Oct. 4. Originally performed at the National College of Education, formerly in Evanston, the program is a piano “concert with commentary” to provide audience members with musical and historical context before each piece. The series moved to Pick-Staiger Concert Hall 25 years ago and has remained there ever since.

Although the concert is native to Chicago, Siegel said “Keyboard Conversations” has expanded over the years to various cities around the country, including New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver and Washington, D.C. Most recently, “Keyboard Conversations” went international and found success in London.

Siegel said the program consists of four performances each year with a Q&A session afterward, the basic format of which has remained the same since its inception, although he joked he has become “better at doing it.” Siegel said audiences continue to enjoy the concerts because of the anecdotal commentary alongside each piece, presented in non-technical jargon so all listeners can understand.

“The audience feels like they’re on the inside track and that’s the whole point of the program,” Siegel said.

Siegel said it’s also easy to sustain “Keyboard Conversations” because there’s a vast wealth of music written for solo piano. Different programs are created each year because there’s still a lot to unpack with many classical pieces, he said.

Jerry Tietz, the director of concert management at the Bienen School of Music, said the concerts have remained a staple of the arts community for so long because of their mass appeal to all music listeners. Despite shifting tastes in music genres, he said Siegel’s concerts have endured the test of time.

“There seems to be this omnipresent, perpetual bemoaning both by arts audiences and by arts companies that our audiences are dwindling,” Tietz said. “The fact that any artist can continue to do successfully and lucratively what Jeffrey has developed is nothing short of impressive.”

Tietz said the program’s unique style is another reason the program has maintained its popularity, even among experienced Chicago audiences. He said people crave the anecdotes and circumstances behind the music Jeffrey plays for an enriched musical experience.

As a Chicago native and parent of two Northwestern alumni, Siegel said he can’t help but feel extremely grateful for the series’ loyal audience and the home Northwestern has given him.

“When I was a boy, I always wished I could go to Northwestern and give concerts,” Siegel said. “To think now I’m beginning the 50th anniversary in Evanston of these programs, it’s quite an experience for me.”

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