Jeffrey Siegel during a 2010 PBS special. Photo / Steve Purcell

Siegel’s latest ‘Keyboard Conversation’ a Bernstein birthday bash

By Bob Abelman

Internationally acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Siegel, labeled the “Leonard Bernstein of the keyboard” by the Chicago Tribune, celebrates his 30th season of “Keyboard Conversations” at Cleveland State University by celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday.

Bernstein’s legacy revolves around his brilliant work as a composer, conductor and humanitarian, as well as his role as an educator through the popular Young People’s Concerts he performed with the New York Philharmonic from Lincoln Center.

These concerts and conversation, which aired on CBS television from 1958 to 1972, inspired generations of musicians and music lovers, including a young Jeffrey Siegel who attended some of the events while a student at The Juilliard School in New York. They serve as the model for Siegel’s “Keyboard Conversations” series.

“Keyboard Conversations” is a unique, concert-with-commentary format in which Siegel’s storytelling informs listeners of the passions, pressures and historical proceedings that influenced the composers and compositions he is about to play. A question-and-answer period follows each concert.

“In 1982. Jeffrey was a piano soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra,” said Kay Shames, director of the Center for Arts and Innovation at CSU, who for the past 18 years has spearheaded Siegel’s concerts.

“While at an after-party, he met Henry Goodman, the chair of the university’s board of trustees. By the end of the evening, there was an arrangement for Jeffrey to bring his popular concerts, which had been performed elsewhere (in Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Milwaukee) to Cleveland as well.”

The Birthday Bash program includes piano arrangements of songs from “West Side Story,” which Bernstein wrote around 1956, and the intimate “Anniversaries,” which Bernstein composed in 1948 and consists of four movements, each written for a different person in his life.

Siegel also will perform a solo piano version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Bernstein famously played on piano when he conducted the New York Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 1976, a Bernstein-transcribed version of Copland’s “El Salon Mexico,” as well as a short, unpublished Bernstein work.

“Perhaps the most interesting work on the program will be the unpublished ‘Meditation on a Wedding’ – a sweet, lyrical piece that charms the ear,” Siegel said. “It shows an intimate, tender side of Bernstein that one does not normally associate with a composer of extrovert Broadway musicals and powerful symphonic scores.”

The four-part Kulas Series of “Keyboard Conversations” at CSU continues Jan. 21, 2018, when Siegel features “Keys to the Classics:  Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.” It will be followed by a March 18, 2018, concert focusing on the work of Frederick Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn, Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin and Jean Sibelius.  Siegel closes the series on Sunday, May 6 with a concert showing how Frederick Chopin, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt – born only months apart – influenced one another’s works.

“More than anything,” adds Siegel, “these concerts offer listeners the transformative powers of great music.”

On stage

“Bernstein Birthday Bash”

WHERE: Cleveland State University’s Waetjen Auditorium, 2001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: 3 p.m. Oct. 29

TICKETS & INFO: $25, call 216-687-5018 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News October 17, 2017

Lead image: Jeffrey Siegel during a 2010 PBS special. Photo / Steve Purcell