Pianist Jeffrey Biegel is young, ambitious, and brimming with enthusiasm. That alone would not make him automatically eligible for inclusion on the All Music Blog, however Jeffrey has an angle, multiple angles, in fact, on revitalizing the standard repertoire, cultivating new music, and utilizing new media to promote the cause of classical music in our time. Besides, Biegel has two -- count 'em, two -- new classical releases this summer, all the more reason to lend him an ear -- it should be well worth your time.
AMG: This might be somewhat of a loaded question: What have you been up to lately?
Jeffrey Biegel: Oh, not loaded at all -- at the end of June, Naxos released my solo piano transcription of the Vivaldi Four Seasons on Naxos.
AMG: I've heard the 4-hand piano version of the Four Seasons recorded by JoÃ£o Carlos Martins and Fernando Corvisier.
JB: Wow, I've never heard that myself! That must be very interesting!
AMG: It is, and what surprised me about it was how well the Four Seasons works as a keyboard piece. You wouldn't think that would work well, as the whole cycle of concerti is so centered on the violin.
JB: In my solo piano version, I basically realized it as a Baroque piece for piano. I have found references to Beethoven's Sonata Op. 2, no. 2 in A Major -- the five note rapid descending notes, and his Appassionata Sonata, Op. 57 in F minor -- it mirrors the last page of Four Seasons in the same key and somewhat motivically.
AMG: Although Vivaldi composed more than 600 concertos that we still have, he apparently never did write a proper keyboard concerto. What did you use to fill the album out?
JB: Piano transcriptions -- not made by me -- of Vivaldi's C major mandolin concerto and the one for lute in D major. These were arranged by Andrew Gentile, a remarkable man who is a lawyer by day and a composer by night. Klaus Heymann (of Naxos) commissioned Andrew to make these arrangements especially for the album. He did them without music -- just from his own memory of the pieces with an assist from a recording -- and they are quite wonderful.
AMG: And August 11 you have something coming out on E1 as well.
JB: Yes. This will be the first volume of the complete Mozart Sonatas. This one is going to be different from all the other Mozart sonata recordings in that the repeat sections include gentle improvisations, embellishments in the style of Mozart. Mozart improvised them in performance, and so I am trying that out here. I am very careful with them, and Susan Napodano DelGiorno, my producer agreed that it is very dangerous ground. Purists can really latch onto something like this and give me a hard time with it, but those familiar with the genius of Mozartâ€™s way with improvisation may welcome it.
AMG: Indeed, I once attended a talk presented on a theme of the "Worst Classical Piano Recordings of All-Time." And some of them were truly bad, but at the end the presenter played some Mozart concerti recorded for Lydian by Peter Breiner where he improvised jazz cadenzas. They werenâ€™t bad at all, but the presenter was of the way opposite opinion; to him, it was sacrilege.
JB: Well, it won't be anything like that -- the repeats are varied within reason. I must admit I had a great deal of fun playing "god" and putting myself into Mozart's heart and pen. At the same time, I felt comfortable doing so.
AMG: So that's two discs this summer -- what else in the pipeline?
JB: I have a disc with Ellen Taafe Zwilich for Naxos which contains two world premieres. Ellen composed the Millennium Fantasy for me, so it is a highlight of the disc along with Ellenâ€™s Peanuts Gallery, a tribute to the late cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz. Itâ€™s a high priority release and will be out within a year. In terms of what I'm working on with a major orchestra, down the line we will have the Lowell Lieberman Third Piano Concerto and the Keith Emerson Piano Concerto from 1977 in a single recording.
AMG: Interesting! I wasn't aware Emerson had a proper piano concerto, though I have heard some of his other extended works, such as his score for the Italian film Inferno, which is excellent.
JB: He first recorded it on an Emerson, Lake and Palmer album called Works, and there is a live version from Madison Square Garden floating around which you can hear in pirated audio -- the audience went crazy for it. Some might wonder if the Emerson Concerto is really prime time concert hall fare, but I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be; you could pair it with the Liszt Concerto in E flat, Leroy Anderson's Piano Concerto or Gershwinâ€™s Rhapsody in Blue. Regarding Lowell Liebermannâ€™s Third Concerto, which was co-commissioned by 18 orchestras, Lowell draws upon 20th century ideas, coupled with a wonderful melodic and harmonic lyricism, though with a 21st century edge. It is extremely well written for the piano and the orchestra. Back to Emerson, Keith is a great fan of Alberto Ginastera's music, and once performed for Ginastera in Switzerland, where he met the composer. Emerson was a little scared, as Ginastera was very picky, but to his surprise Ginastera commented, "That's the way my music is supposed to be played."
AMG: You have developed some remarkable commissioning programs over the years, finding new ways to connect artists with orchestras. Could you share a little with us about that?
JB: In 1998, I created the world's first large consortium of orchestras -- 27 in all -- to commission the Millennium Fantasy from Ellen Taafe Zwilich. We first did it in Cincinnati, with Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and when Alexander Jimenez conducted the Florida State University Orchestra for the world premiere recording due in 2010, we paired it with Ellenâ€™s Peanuts Gallery. To perform the Millennium Fantasy with more than 20 orchestras was a wonderful experience. The piece evolved over time.
Afterward, I was working on a commission with Charles Strouse, who is known more for popular music.
AMG: Indeed, didn't he write "Those Were the Days," the theme to All in the Family?
JB: Yes he did, and he also wrote the shows Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, Rags, and a score to the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven. Not many people know that Charles Strouse studied with Nadia Boulanger, Aaron Copland, and Arthur Berger. But he had a hit pop song; perhaps you've heard it -- "Born Too Late" for The Poni-Tails. [Begins to hum a little of the song...]
AMG: Oh sure, I know that one...
JB: The success of that number took Strouse in a different direction. I had real hopes for a Charles Strouse concerto and was working towards making it the first 50 state project, but 9/11 interrupted it. The Strouse Concerto America did receive performances with me and the Boston Pops and the Honolulu Symphony. It is a remarkable combination of the many musical sides of Charles Strouse.
In 2003, I approached Lowell Lieberman for a project, and for this project, an international orchestra from Germany joined the project, making it the first consortium of an American composerâ€™s music co-commissioned by orchestras in the US along with an orchestra outside of the US. We launched the Liebermann concerto in Milwaukee in 2006, and the commission involves 18 orchestras in all. I still have one more concert of it, and of course, there are plans to record it. I am also working with Richard Danielpour, whose next work for piano and orchestra will be in five movements dealing with different aspects of personality -- that is set to premiere with the Pacific Symphony in February, 2010. Then there's William Bolcom's Prometheus, which is for piano and orchestra with a chorus after the Lord Byron poem. It's about how Eastern countries view the West, though Bolcom manages to steer it away from innuendo. It's a surprising project, as Bolcom is not particularly political. There are 9 orchestras participating in this project, premiering with the Pacific Symphony in late 2010, and it will make its Canadian bow with the Calgary Philharmonic in 2011 as the international orchestra featured in the consortium.
AMG: So what motivated your passion for creating commissions for multiple orchestras?
JB: I wanted to develop a new model for the 21st century in commissioning works from composers. Owing to 9/11, the decline in arts funding, the economic downturn, what have you, there's no system for new music in place. I returned to Ellen Taafe Zwilich in order to ask if she would be interested in the first worldwide commission involving a projected goal of 100 orchestras, with each one contributing $1,000 towards her fee. This model has the capability to create all kinds of other projects, and it's a reasonable system for promoting new music in hard economic times. Another one I'm working on is from composer Roberto Sierra, The Planets: Odyssey for Piano and Wind Ensemble. Roberto likes the idea of this project as there isn't a good deal of literature for piano and winds.
AMG: Indeed, just the Stravinsky concerto and Colin McPhee's surviving concerto for piano and eight winds.
JB: Yes, and of course, if you play the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue in its original version, it's essentially for piano and winds. But there's little else.
AMG: You've done a fair amount of recording. What stands out from your experiences in that realm?
JB: I made my first recording for Marco Polo in 1992 of the 25 Preludes of CÃ©sar Cui. These are wonderful pieces and very under-known. Thankfully, they will be back in print as I have edited the edition to be published by Artaria. In 1997, I created and performed the very first live internet concert, but back then most of the world didn't have modem speed fast enough to take it all in, so further internet concerts were not created. However, I made 1,000 copies of that concert on a CD which is now out of print, but you can still download it at rhapsody.com. I guess I can always reissue it if I want to, but now the technology is in every way better, and I'd almost rather do the whole thing over.
AMG: Classical Carols was certainly a change of pace from the other things you have done.
JB: Classical Carols is a really nice CD that sets a great mood for celebrating the holiday season. Carolyne Taylor made all of those arrangements, and she weaves traditional carols into the harmonic match-ups of Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or whatever composer's voice she's set her mind to working in â€“- and quite seamlessly.
AMG: One work many critics have damned with faint praise -- rightly or wrongly -- is the Leroy Anderson Piano Concerto. Given the classical establishment's attitude towards it, one would expect it to have faded away once it was recorded and curiosity about it had been satisfied. You, however, have been treating it as a repertory piece, and you've taken it farther than I would have thought possible.
JB: I love this piece. I first heard it backstage in Cincinnati when Stewart Goodyear was performing it with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops for a CD. It was so ear catching, I couldn't get it out of my head. It's got a little bit of Chopin in it and a lovely cantabile line -- some octaves, thirds, anything you would want in a piano concerto. I contacted Mrs. Anderson, and she sent me a cassette of the premiere performance, with Eugene List, from the radio for the 1953 Grant Park Festival in Chicago. Then she also sent a two-piano version in Leroy Anderson's hand, which had the whole piano solo part and most of the orchestral part in the second hand, but it was not completely filled in. Mrs. Anderson said, "Please fill in the rest," and I did, and they published it. I first got a chance to perform it with the Grant Park Festival in 1994 -- its first performance there since 1953 -- and then with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops in 1995. Since then I've played it in Turkey, and also with the Boston Pops in 2003. In 2006, I recorded it with Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Concert Orchestra for Naxos. Maestro Slatkin is a musician of true integrity who explores so much music and understands it so well, and I think the CD came out really great. Some may think that Anderson was just someone who wrote little morsels -- however brilliant each one is in its own right, but I think working only in the short medium is more challenging. Each one of those pieces has its own flavor, its own rhythm and its own harmony. The entire concerto is just infectious music, and I love playing it.
AMG: Since your 1997 concert experiment on the web, have you made any other strides in bringing technology into the compass of what you do?
JB: Yes, definitely. I downloaded Skype just for fun, and I was contacted by a pianist from Singapore, who told me "I can't afford to study with you in New York, but I would still like to have lessons with you." So I started giving him lessons through Skype, and that has opened up a whole realm of possibilities for pianists worldwide. On the videos [short demos of Jeffrey Biegel on Skype which one can download from YouTube], using headphones, I am able to hear and see the pianist via the webcam just fine. I do see this as the future of teaching from a distance. I am glad to be one of the first to be doing so.
AMG: Any final thoughts?
JB: I have always enjoyed composing, as my choral music in available through the Hal Leonard Corporation, Carl Fischer Inc., Earthsongs, and the LeDor Group. Since I am not a composer who makes a living from composing, I write when the muse strikes. Writing literature is fun as well, and I have joined in a special collaboration with the childrenâ€™s book company, All Around Our World. This is very new and not made public just yet. I have also recorded CDs and edited the well known Sonatina Album and Schumann's Scenes from Childhood for the Schirmer Performance Editions. Future Schirmer editions being released this year and 2010 include my CDs for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and works by Kabalevsky and Prokofiev to accompany the printed editions.
Jeffrey Biegel, piano - Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, La primavera - Allegro
Jeffrey Biegel, piano - Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 6 in D, K. 284 - Rondeau en Polonaise
Jeffrey Biegel, piano - CÃ©sar Cui: Prelude No. 6, Op. 25/6
Jeffrey Biegel, piano - Carolyne Taylor: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (in the style of Chopin's Revolutionary Etude in C minor, Op. 10, No. 12)
For more on Jeffrey Biegel, check out jeffreybiegel.com.