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Siegel Brings 'Conversational Piano' to GMU

bt>When the houselights dim on Schlesinger Hall next Saturday, the evening will see a meeting of the minds, both taken to reaching out to their audience to take classical music beyond the genre’s traditional avenues.

The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra (ASO) concert kicks off the orchestra’s 2003-04 season with the theme, “Where Does the Music Take You?”

It’s a season based on the idea of exploring how music affects the listeners, said Kim Allen Kluge, the symphony’s musical director and conductor. “I always experience music in a visual way, and I always thought it would be interesting for our audiences to share that experience,” he said.

For the premiere of that season-long experience, pianist Jeffrey Siegel will join Kluge and the ASO, performing Franz Liszt’s adaptation of Franz Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy.” Like Kluge, Siegel said he wants to encourage audiences to think about classical music with an open mind.

To that end, the New York-based pianist carries on “Keyboard Conversations,” discussions and concerts in which he discusses the background and context of the music he performs. Just eight days after his ASO performance, Siegel returns to Northern Virginia for a Keyboard Conversation at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.

“Keyboard Conversations reach out and make friends for classical music,” said Siegel. The format draws classical music aficionados and newcomers alike, he said, because it adds some new twist to what would otherwise be a straightforward recital. “I’ve heard people say afterwards, ‘I didn’t realize I could like classical music.’”

Leonard Bernstein’s lectures and concerts for young people served as “the guiding light” for the Keyboard Conversations, Siegel said. “Everything [Bernstein] said was in preparation for hearing the piece. By the time he turned around, the listener was on the edge of his seat.”

SCHUBERT’S “WANDERER FANTASY” should take members of the audience to the edge of their seats, Siegel said. “It’s an unusual piece for Schubert, because it’s so extremely extroverted. And it’s more virtuosic than anything else he’s written.”

So virtuosic, in fact, that performance eluded its composer. In a story that the composer himself related in a letter, he tried to perform the piece for a group of friends, Siegel said. “He broke off towards the end in frustration, and said, ‘The devil can play such stuff, but I cannot.’”

Other pianists have sympathized. “I have played the solo version many times, and I can understand Schubert’s feelings,” said Siegel.

IN THE KEYBOARD Conversation at GMU, Siegel will play and discuss Johannes Brahms’ “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,” and J.S. Bach’s Toccata in D. “We’re starting our second decade of these,” said Siegel. “It’s Year 11 of these.”

The Brahms piece shows the composer “looking backwards for inspiration, to Bach and Handel in particular,” said Siegel. “Brahms has often been called old wine in new bottles.”

In the pieces, Brahms explores an air from the first movement in one of Handel’s keyboard suites, over the course of 25 variations. “Brahms takes us through a whole kaleidoscope of musical moods and soul states,” said Siegel, “from the pit of despair to exuberance.”

Nevertheless, he said, Brahms never lets the audience forget that “everything derived from Handel’s little tune.”

In his discussion at GMU, Siegel will take listeners through Brahms’ composition process, in experimenting with the scrap of a tune by Handel. He will also discuss Bach’s Toccata in D, which like the Brahms dabbles in a range of styles.

“Bach is the centerpiece” of this season of “Keyboard Conversations,” Siegel said. “This year is ‘Bach and Beyond.’ We’re going to have a piece that’s almost 300 years old, and as exciting and moving as it was when it was new.”