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at the Royal Albert Hall in 1976, a Bernstein-transcribed version of Copland’s “El Salon Mexico,” as well as a short, unpublished Bernstein work.

“Perhaps the most interesting work on the program will be the unpublished ‘Meditation on a Wedding’ – a sweet, lyrical piece that charms the ear,” Siegel said.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

Photos in lead image from left to right: Brian Zoldessy, Scott Miller, Joel Hammer, George Roth and Jeffrey Grover in a scene from “On a Technicality”; Jeffrey Grover as “Howard” preparing for a take for "On a Technicality"; and George Roth as “Bruce” in "On a Technicality." Photos courtesy of g2h films; illustration by Jon Larson.

From Hollywood productions to Northeast Ohio-made indie films, moviemaking on the ‘Third Coast’ is a growing industry and art form

By Bob Abelman

The “Third Coast.” That sure sounds better than “mistake on the lake.” Cleveland’s new and improved moniker comes courtesy of its recent emergence as a hub for international, regional and local movie making and exhibition.

And it’s not just Cleveland. There has been an onslaught of high-profile films hosted by Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, including “Draft Day,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Ides of March,” “Carol” and “The Avengers.”

Those films and others have created more than 1,700 full-time equivalent jobs and generated more than $400 million in spending in Northeast Ohio in the past five years, according to a recent study conducted by the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

During the “Avengers” shoot, for example, locals were hired for location scouting, camera operation and loading, electrical and construction crews, as well as security, signage, catering and cleanup. Local actors have been cast as extras and in featured speaking and nonspeaking roles in such recent releases as “My Blind Brother,” “The Bronze,” “With This Ring” and “The Bye Bye Man.”

Much of the praise for this development goes to the Ohio film credit incentive program, created in 2009. The Ohio Development Services Agency offers refundable credits to film companies for up to a quarter of what they spend in the state and 35 percent for Ohio resident wages, with a cap set at $5 million per film and $20 million per year.

A consulting firm called Film Production Capital, which rates states by their film production incentives, gave Ohio three stars out of five, which puts the Buckeye State on par with other coastal states known for their moviemaking: New York and California.

Earning more stars are places like Louisiana (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Green Lantern”), Georgia (“Lawless,” “The Blind Side”) and North Carolina (“Iron Man 3,” “Hunger Games”), where they offer even greater financial incentives. Because of this, according to Ivan Schwarz, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, Cleveland lost “Ant-Man” and the next two “Avengers” movies to Atlanta, “even though Marvel Studios loves working here.”

While we may not yet be attracting as many film production companies as some other states, the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) has no problem attracting independent films from around the globe and the people who love them.

The very first CIFF ran from April 13 through June 2, 1977, showing eight films from seven countries. They were seen by a handful of subscribers and their guests. Last year, the CIFF’s 39th, 193 feature films and 238 short films representing 60 countries were seen by 100,204 people over 11 days, making it a go-to destination for independent filmmakers and their fans.

Though the festival is truly international in scope, 32 films made by Ohioans were on display at CIFF39 in 2015, warranting their own “Local Heroes” category. This speaks volumes about the quality of the films being made locally in recent years.

One of those films, which received its world premiere at the CIFF, was “On a Technicality” – a short film (22 minutes) made on a small budget ($21,000) and shot in three days, though the editing took more than 100 hours. Written by local actor Jeff Grover, who was featured in and co-produced the film, it was directed by Andrew Gorell and co-produced by Steven Hacker, who was also the film’s cinematographer.

Their positive CIFF experience and that of Cleveland cast members George Roth, Brian Zoldessy, Scott Miller and Joel Hammer reflect well on the burgeoning cottage industry that is local filmmaking. So does the journey “On a Technicality” took afterward.

The entirety of “On a Technicality” takes place in the back booth at Jack’s Deli on Cleveland’s East Side, where five old friends examine the value of friendship during a troubling time – the illness and subsequent death of one of their own – over a series of brunches. Days before the film’s debut, the actors – actually old friends – sat down to chat about the film and did so with the same witty banter that saturates their characters’ exchanges.

“Clearly, the moviemaking scene in Northeast Ohio is thinking globally but acting locally.”

Canvas: What is it about eating that filmmakers find so intriguing and revealing? It plays such a central role in films like “Chef” (2014), “Waitress” (2007), “Ratatouille” (2007), “Babette’s Feast” (1987), “My Dinner With Andre” (1981) and so many others.

Roth: There is something so communal about eating, particularly at a deli. Audiences will automatically find the setting of our film comfortable and the shorthand that we speak between and during mouthfuls to be immediately recognizable.

Grover: Also, what people choose to eat and how they eat communicates so much about a person. For filmmakers, one bite is worth a thousand words.

Canvas: While having actors confined to a booth is probably a dream for directors (easy to capture on camera) and costumers (no need for pants), does it create any particular creative challenges for you?

Miller: For the record, I believe all of us were wearing pants. Maybe not Joel.

Roth: The seating actually helped inform the relationships between these five guys. We developed a more intimate relationship with the fellows sitting next to us, which comes across in the film and makes the friendships seem more realistic.

Zoldessy: With so little movement, the focus is on what we say and the emotional connection between us.

Miller: And it was nice to know that, no matter what, I was always hitting my mark.

Grover: Joel lucked out by being seated in the middle of the booth. We wouldn’t let him out for bathroom breaks which, I think, added some interesting texture to his performance.

Hammer: I’m normally an aisle seat kind of guy. In case of fire.

Canvas: How does being friends in life inform your portrayal of friends on film?

Roth: We’re playing characters, but because our real-life relationships were established before this film began, our reactions to each other’s scripted dialogue are very authentic.

Hammer: Plus we did not have a lot of time to work on this, so being friends allowed us to be authentic without needing a lot of rehearsal.

Grover: Although we haven’t known each other since grade school, as have our characters, we still have a chemistry and sense of fun that were captured on camera. Both of those qualities proved to be essential for the story we are telling, particularly when illness intrudes on the inner circle of these five old friends.

Canvas: What do you hope to be the audience’s take-away from this film?

Miller: This film is about friendship. It’s about sticking it out, being there for each other, supporting each other, belonging. Friendships are families of choice. I hope this movie reminds people to treasure those they have chosen to include in their inner circle.

Zoldessy: Yes. Family is broader than blood.

Grover: I hope that the audience will be able to imagine the “what ifs” in life and know that good friends will always have their back.

They did.

The film was very well received at the CIFF and, bolstered by its success and notoriety, went on to several other festivals, including the New York Independent Film Festival, Cincinnati Film Festival, Kansas City Jewish Film Festival, and NST/SFF on Long Island. Grover and his colleagues are also considering web-based options to make the film easily accessible to others, including Video on Demand, Amazon and VIMEO. Also underway is “On a Technicality II,” a working title, with the same collaborators under the auspices of a new production company, g2h films. There are three other projects in production as well.

Clearly, the moviemaking scene in Northeast Ohio is thinking globally but acting locally. Additional proof came June 29, when Ohio Governor John Kasich has signed into law a revised Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit, passed in May by the Ohio General Assembly. The move raises the annual incentive cap to $40 million, removes the $5 million per project cap, and changes the incentive rate to a flat 30 percent on all production dollars spent in Ohio.

Translation:  More incentive for Hollywood to come to Northeast Ohio, and more reason to believe Cleveland may be bumped up in status to the “Second Coast.” CV

Photos in lead image from left to right: Brian Zoldessy, Scott Miller, Joel Hammer, George Roth and Jeffrey Grover in a scene from “On a Technicality”; Jeffrey Grover as “Howard” preparing for a take for “On a Technicality”; and George Roth as “Bruce” in “On a Technicality.” Photos courtesy of g2h films; illustration by Jon Larson.