When pianist Jeffrey Siegel presented his first “Keyboard Conversation,” he had no idea that the concept would explode into 100 programs featuring music by the world’s greatest composers.
At that time he was in constant demand as guest soloist with great orchestras worldwide, including the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, Moscow State Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Forty-five years later, his ongoing series, the subject of a PBS television special, consists of four annual concerts in each of 22 cities in the United States, as well as in London. Several of his popular conversations are available online and in book form.
On Sunday, his third performance of the season at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts delves into the incomparable brilliance and tortured soul of Franz Liszt through three major works.
“For me, Liszt is the most fascinating composer of all in terms of his life,” Mr. Siegel told The Washington Times. “He was the most famous man in Europe during the 19th century. People who knew little about music knew about him, and many urged him to write his autobiography. His response was, ‘It’s enough to live my life; I have no desire to write about it.’
“His life was a battle for dominance between God and the devil. Even though he was a very religious Catholic, he enjoyed more pleasures of the carnal life than can be imagined.”
Keyboard Conversations is a unique concept that gives double the pleasure. The highlights are Mr. Siegel’s masterful execution of key compositions and the stories behind them — related with wit and compassion. His goal, he emphasized, is to counteract the declining music programs in public schools and the vanishing parlor piano in every home. Neither bone-chilling snowstorms nor dreary airport waits and cancellations dilute his joy in sharing his talents and insight with lifelong music lovers and newcomers alike.
“This program opens with Liszt’s magnificent ‘Ave Maria,’ a truly gorgeous piece,” he said. “Because of his prolific output, it’s impossible to scratch the surface, so I try to whet the listeners’ appetites to explore further. His ‘Mephisto Waltz,’ the antithesis of his ‘Ave Maria,’ is the most autobiographical of his work in its depiction of his pact with the devil.”
Liszt’s midlife was marked by scandal. His romantic escapades with the married countess Marie d’Agoult for 12 years, followed by liaisons with Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, inspired some of his most famous works. For many years, he was so popular as an itinerant concert artist that women tossed him their undergarments — reminiscent of today’s Tom Jones fans.
He eventually took on greater responsibility by becoming kapellmeister to the court of the Grand Duke of Weimer, where he promoted new music and had the freedom to experiment. This is where he developed the symphonic poem genre and composed some of his finest orchestral works.
But God was waiting in the wings. When Princess Carolyne lured Liszt to Rome to seek an annulment of her marriage in order to marry him, he became friendly with the Pope and, subsequently, began studying for the clergy. Neither he nor Carolyne were successful in their personal quests.
“The two extremes of Liszt’s life, saint and sinner, are vividly represented in his ‘Sonata in B minor,’” Mr. Siegel said. “This is his most famous work, and it is a technical masterpiece. It essentially has four movements [in one] and lasts 30 minutes. I’m emotionally exhausted when I finish playing it, because it ranges from all the highs and lows he experienced at the hands of God and Satan.”
Mr. Siegel said that Liszt was misunderstood in his day because his music was often poorly performed.
“His biographer, Alan Walker, describes this sonata as a ‘massive blizzard of notes often played by punch drunk virtuosos,’” he said. “Consequently, many people feel that he purveyed musical trash. I know from experience that he had to be a virtuoso if he could play what he wrote.”
Mr. Siegel concludes his Keyboard Conversations season at GMU with “Rachmaninoff and Friends” on May 10.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Pianist Jeffrey Siegel’s Keyboard Conversations: “Torment and Triumph — The Romantic Music of Franz Liszt,” sponsored by Steinway Gallery of Washington, D.C.
WHERE: George Mason University’s Center for the Arts
WHEN: Sunday, March 8 at 7 p.m.
INFO: Tickets $24-$40 by calling 888/945-2468 or visiting cfa.gmu.edu