The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Jeffrey Siegel leaves Madison, after 26 seasons of his “Keyboard Conversations,” as a victim of his own success.

May 20, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

A couple of weeks ago, after 26 consecutive seasons, pianist Jeffrey Siegel (below) gave what is likely to be his last “Keyboard Conversation” in Madison at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. “Music and Mistresses” focused on Romantic music that was inspired by love and composed by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and Claude Debussy. (For an introductory sample of that program, listen to the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Jeffrey Siegel 2014

That is a fine record of enviable longevity for a unique program that started at the old Madison Civic Center, then moved to the Overture Center and finally ended up at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

For more about his concert-conversation format and the cities where he still performs, visit:

As a fond farewell, I want to tell the public and Jeffrey Siegel how welcome and successful he was.

Not that the series didn’t run into trouble. But I expect there were many reasons why the attendance at the concert-discussion series finally fell to the point where no amount of cutting back or finagling could save it or keep it financially viable.

One reason was the perception, true or not, that Siegel’s concerts began to seem repetitive and predictable, even though he played a wide range of repertoire that also included works by  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Sergei Rachmaninoff and many others.

Another reason was the overall arts competition in Madison and specifically that more exciting pianists and contemporary or unusual piano programs — Christopher Taylor comes to mind — came on the local scene and cut into his appeal.

Scheduling was one another reason.

My own life became complicated when I started teaching an evening class in journalism at the University of Wisconsin while I also worked my regular day job as a reporter, writer and editor at The Capital Times. The mid-week days just became too long.

For some listeners, I expect, the tickets also became too expensive, especially if you weren’t a UW-Madison student.

But an even bigger factor probably, I suspect, was the explosive growth of the Madison classical concert scene since Siegel first started here 26 seasons ago. For example,  the Madison Symphony Orchestra now gives three performances of its subscription concerts and the UW School of Music hosts some 300 FREE events, including concerts by the Pro Arte Quartet (below, with Juilliard Quartet violist Samuel Rhodes). People, music fans included, are unbelievably busy.

Pro Arte with Samuel Rhodes

But I also want to propose that another major reason why Jeffrey Siegel ended up losing his series in Madison is that his approach proved so popular that other competing musicians adopted it.

In that way, Jeffrey Siegel was ahead of his time in learning how, as a performer and not just musicologist, to cultivate music appreciation, how to grow new and younger audiences for classical music. He was among the first to link musical performance with music education.

In that sense, Jeffrey Siegel -– who first discusses a piece of music and then plays it in its entirety -– was a pioneer who eventually became a victim of his own success.

After all, when The Ear first started attending the concerts by Siegel -– who always proved a generous and genial interview as well as a fine musician -– few or none of the serious “longhair” performers talked about their program. Pre-concert lectures were the exception, NOT the rule.

True, Leonard Bernstein (below) had done the Young People’s Concerts, which might have been a model for Siegel. But there were precious few followers.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

But these days I hear prefatory remarks from performers done regularly by conductor John DeMain at the Madison Symphony Orchestra; by conductor Andrew Sewell at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; by general director Kathryn Smith of the Madison Opera; by cellist Parry Karp of the Pro Arte Quartet; and by virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

I have heard it done at the Madison Early Music Festival by Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe. Every MEMF concert has a pre-concert lecture.

And I have learned that the upcoming Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee will even require participants to talk about the music they will play, and judge them on how they do.

On the air, the late Karl Haas and now Bill McGlaughlin (below) of the nightly “Exploring Music” series on Wisconsin Public Radio, take a similar approach.

Bill McGlaughlin at  microphone

In short, concert etiquette these days seems to prefer the Siegel approach of providing a frame for the painting, of giving listeners a historical and aesthetic context and not just assuming that the music can speak for himself.

In Jeffrey Siegel, classical music found a powerful ally and inventive advocate.

In that way, the end of Keyboard Conversations should be seen as vindication of Siegel’s approach and as a success, not as a validation that it was somehow wrong-headed or outdated and so proved a failure.

So The Ear doesn’t know what else to say except: Thank you, Jeffrey. I — and no doubt many others — wish you success in other places and with other ventures.

Imitation, the old saying goes, is the sincerest form of flattery. And so the classical music in Madison will continue to pay homage to you -– even without your presence.

That may not be just or fair. But that seems to be the way it is.

Classical music here and elsewhere owes a debt to you. You can and should be proud of that legacy. You were not a failure, but a success. It’s just that success can exact as severe a price as failure does.

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Classical music: On Tuesday night pianist Jeffrey Siegel wraps up his 26th — and probably his LAST — season in Madison of “Keyboard Conversations” with love-inspired music by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy and Brahms.

May 5, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Tuesday night, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, pianist Jeffrey Siegel (below) will present this season’s last Keyboard Conversation, dedicated to love and love affairs by major Romantic composers, including Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin and the French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy.

According to sources, it will be Jeffrey Siegel’s last season of being sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Theater, which is using Mills Hall during renovations that will end this year when the hall reopens in the fall.

The Ear understands that the WUT tried to turn the declining attendance around for several years, but to no avail. So barring self-sponsorship or a new sponsor this concert is likely to be the last Keyboard Conversation in Madison. After more than a quarter century, that will be the sad end of a tradition.

The program includes the “Allegro non troppo ma enegetico” movement from the Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor by Brahms; the Novelette, No. 1, plus “Warum?” (Why?) and “Aufschwung’ (Soaring) from Schumann’s “Fantasy Pieces; “Au bord d’une source” (At the Spring) and the popular “Liebestraum No. “3 (Love’s Dream, heard at bottom in a popular YouTube performance by Evgeny Kissin) by Franz Liszt; the “Minute” Waltz and the “Larghetto” slow second movement from the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Chopin; and “L’Isle joyeuse” (The Joyous Island) by Debussy.”

Jeffrey Siegel 2014

More information is available by calling the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787). Tickets are: $32 for the General Public, $28 for Wisconsin Union Members, UW-Madison Faculty and Staff, and Non UW-Madison Student (with ID); and FREE for UW-Madison Student (with ID).

Buy tickets online here, call the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787), or purchase in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.

Tickets are required for entry even when free, so please reserve ahead of time.

For more information, including reviews and audio samples, visit:

Adds the Wisconsin Union Theater press release: “Whether you’re a classical music aficionado, a history buff, or just love a good story, Jeffrey Siegel’s Keyboard Conversations will take you beyond the music and into the lives and loves of some of the greatest composers of all time.

“In “Mistresses and Masterpieces,” Siegel introduces us to the romantic inspirations behind many popular works of classical music. While names like “Brahms” and “Schumann” may bring to mind proper-looking gentlemen in oil portraits, these brilliant composers’ lives were often closer to a soap opera than a history book blurb.

“As Siegel will tell you, these men not only loved and lost — they put their pain and passion into incredible works of music that still inspire those emotions to this day. Read more about these affairs in our blog.

“For the 26th consecutive season, Jeffrey Siegel presents his entertaining and informative concerts with commentary. He speaks to the audience briefly and in non-technical language before performing each composition in its entirety. The program will conclude with a Q and A.

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Classical music Q&A: Maestro John DeMain talks about this weekend’s opening concerts of his 20th anniversary season as music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Plus, pianist Jeffrey Siegel opens Keyboard Conversations with an all-Beethoven program at 7:30 tonight in Mills Hall.

September 24, 2013
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A REMINDER:  Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Union Theater presents pianist Jeffrey Siegel (below) who will start his new season of Keyboard Conversations with “The Glory of Beethoven.” The program will conclude with a Q and A. Among the  works on this program will be the “Teresa Sonata” Op. 78,  (who was she and why did Ludwig van Beethoven compose this for her?) and the final Piano Sonata in C Minot, Op. 111, written after deafness enjulfed the composer. Here are ticket prices: General Public is $32 ; Memorial Union Member is $28; UW-Madison Faculty and Staff is $28; Non UW-Madison Students are $28; UW-Madison Student (with ID) is FREE; Youth is a Family Savings Event ofF $14 with purchase of an adult ticket and a limit of 2 youth tickets per adult ticket.


By Jacob Stockinger

True enough, officially the new music season started on Labor Day with the 36th annual Karp Family Concert. It proved to be a memorable evening of varied chamber music. Ad there have been some memorable chamber concerts and recitals since then.

But for many listeners, the season doesn’t really get underway until some BIG group with a BIG sound starts performing BIG works before a BIG audience.

That will happen this weekend when the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will open its season-long tribute to mark the 20th anniversary of music director and conductor John DeMain’s tenure with the orchestra.

mso from above

The program – done without a soloist – features three major and well-known orchestral works: Aaron Copland’sAppalachian Spring”; Richard Wagner’s “Prelude and Love Death” to the opera “Tristan und Isolde”; and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

Performances are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center and take place on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom (below) will give Prelude discussion of the program one hour before each performance.

anders yocom studio  head shot cr Jim Gill

And here is a link to the program notes by the always enlightening and accessible J. Michael Allsen, who plays trombone in the MSO and teaches at the University fo Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Single tickets are $13,50 to $82.50. For more information about the concerts and tickets, visit:

In advance of the concert, Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) graciously granted an email interview to The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Why did you decide to open the season without the usual piano or violin soloist?

There has been a long-standing tradition in the past among many orchestras to open the season with an all orchestral concert that focuses on the great musicians who make up the orchestra.

I felt that on the occasion of my 20th anniversary with the Madison Symphony, this would be a good time to revive that custom and try it out here in Madison.

I wanted to share my anniversary with the orchestra, because they are my instrument, and without them, I wouldn’t be able to perform. I do hope that this can become a tradition.

Of course, “Scheherazade” throws a huge focus on our concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), as she represents the Princess Scheherazade through numerous violin solos throughout the piece. Other members are featured as well, notably the cello, clarinet, horn and bassoon.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

What did you choose to program these particular pieces? Can you walk us briefly through the program and tell us why they appealed to you:

The program has something for me: “Appalachian Spring”; something for music itself: “Tristan,” celebrating Wagner’s 200th birthday, and Something for the audience: “Scheherazade,” a dazzling crowd-pleaser.

I’m an America-born and America-trained musician. Copland (below) was our idol growing up. He stood for all that was American in the classical music world. He appealed to both musician and listener, and I wanted him to be on my anniversary program.

aaron copland

I’m an opera conductor as well, and Wagner (below) gave us dazzling works for the operatic canon that featured the orchestra in a major way. “Tristan und Isolde” is my favorite Wagner opera, so, again, I wanted the Prelude and Love-Death to be my anniversary choice on his 200th anniversary as well.

And lastly, I wanted a major work that showcases our incredible orchestra, with its virtuosic musicians on our glorious Overture Hall stage.

Actually all three works feature the orchestra in a spectacular manner, so it should be a real treat for the audience.

Richard Wagner

How healthy is the Madison Symphony Orchestra now in terms of finances, artistic achievement and audiences?

The Madison Symphony continues to draw broad support from our subscribers, single ticket buyers, and major donors. I’m particularly proud of the major increase in student attendees, and very proud of our educational programs interacting with our wonderful community.

I would encourage people who have not been to a symphony concert to take advantage of our 50% discount for first time subscribers and sign up. This season’s programs are rich and varied, and I think a first-timer will have a marvelous experience.

(Editor’s note: Until this Thursday, Sept. 26, the MSO is making a special offer that any new subscriber can receive 50% off on a subscription of five or more concerts. Details are at:

After that our regular offer to new subscribers is that they can save UP TO 50% off a subscription. (50% off when people subscribe to 7 or 8 concerts and 40% off when people subscribe to 5 or 6 concerts.)


What goals have you met in your 20-year tenure and what goals remain to be fulfilled?

My goals in the beginning were to increase the size of the audience by going to triple performances; increase the size of the string section; expand the repertoire; challenge the players, and lobby for a better performance space. (Below is Overture Hall, the permanent home of the MSO.)

These goals were not only met, but the results have far exceeded even my expectations. There is still much more repertoire to explore, ever-expanding educational opportunities to develop still more audiences for classical music, and the constant addition of major new performing artists that I would like to bring to our audiences.

Overture Hall

What conclusions about your 20-year tenure with the MSO would you like the audience to hear and take away from hearing this opening concert of your anniversary season?

I would like the audience to feel how blessed we are in this community to have such a fine orchestra that adores performing for its audience and is deeply committed to artistic excellence, and how worthy it is to continue to have great music enrich our lives in live performances that bring musician, audience member, and the music itself, together in a unique way.

MSO playing

And lastly, I am so grateful and forever indebted to Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi for giving us the Overture Center for the Arts. It is the thrill of my lifetime to be able to perform in this beautiful space. I also would like to add how much my lovely wife Barbara (below top), and my beautiful daughter Jennifer (below bottom) have loved living, growing up, and studying in this great city of Madison. Thank you from all of us to the community.

John DeMain and Barbara DeMain

John DeMain and Jennifer DeMain

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