Robert Estrin - piano expert

Interview with Pianist Jeffrey Beigel

Discover the life of a modern concert pianist

In this video, Robert interviews Jeffrey Beigel, a young, well-known concert pianist who gives you an idea of how interesting the life of a concert pianist is nowadays.

Released on August 24, 2016

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Video Transcription

Robert: Hi. This is Robert Estrin, and welcome to and, announcing a series of interviews. Today, we have a guest artist, Jeffrey Biegel, who is a brilliant concert pianist. I've known Jeff for many years. As a matter of fact, he studied with my father, Morton Estrin, so we've known each other since childhood. He was a brilliant young pianist at that time and has evolved to one of the world's great concert pianists. Recently, while touring through the Southern California, performing with the Pacific Symphony here in Orange County, we had a chance to chat and I'd like to share this video with you. Very interested in your impressions of this video and how you feel about this interview series. Thanks so much for joining me. Once again, Robert Estrin at and

Hi. This is Robert Estrin with a special edition of and We have a special guest, Jeffrey Biegel, concert pianist, here to perform the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue in America and in Paris with the Pacific Symphony, Carl St. Clair's 25th Anniversary. And we have him here for interview session. Jeffrey has played with the Cincinnati Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Detroit Symphony, many different orchestras. He has had many concertos written just for him which we're going to talk about the significance of that. So welcome, Jeff. It's a pleasure having you here.

Jeffrey: Pleasure to be here. Thanks.

Robert: Absolutely. So are you excited about your performance tomorrow?

Jeffrey: Absolutely.

Robert: Terrific.

Jeffrey: It's a great orchestra. I've done two performances with them in 2010. We did the world premiere of a new concerto by Richard Danielpour, and several months later a new work by William Bolcom for piano orchestra and chorus, and now I'm back to do more standard fare.

Robert: Fantastic. You know, it's an interesting thing just so everybody knows, we go way back when you were a young kid. You're a few years younger than me. I met you because you're one of my father's very talented piano students.

Jeffrey: That's right.

Robert: And he would, often times, at dinner time...because you had a lesson right after our dinner. He'd go, ''You hear that? He's reading that. That's not a piece he learned this week." So Coren and I, my sister of course, we would always hear all about you and it was a real pleasure, and to see how far you've come. Of course you're now at Brooklyn University in New York. You do teaching there, you do performing.

What I want to talk about today, and I think it's a real interest to people, the challenges of carving out a career as a concert pianist in the United States of America in the 21st century is a tremendous challenge that few people can break through. And I know your business model is really unique, and it's really hard to explain it to people because it is such a complex model really that requires so much leg work and phone work and email work. And I want you to describe a little bit about what your activity is and how you manage to have carved out a name for yourself and a career in this incredibly competitive concert market.

Jeffrey: I think it all started back when I was studying with your father. When he took a piece of music that had literally was hot off the press by Meyer Kupferman. That was 1973. And he said to me, "It's a new piece of music called 'Sonata Mystikos.' I don't have time to learn it. Here, you learn it." And I was about 12 years old, not even. And I did learn it, but the turning point for me, other than my studies of standard repertoire, was this piece of music. Why, because I went to play it for the composer.

Robert: Yes.

Jeffrey: And that was the seed that set the course for the future over several decades up until the present. And playing a piece for a composer, especially for Meyer who wrote it and played it himself, I'm sure, was an eye opener to really understand what was beyond the printed page. What really made the composer write what he wrote? And of course, for us to do that with standard repertoire we can't ask Beethoven, we can't ask Bach, but to be able to deal with a living composer like on that level was an incredible moment for me at the time.

And over the years, I was able to play new works by composers; perhaps they were commissioned for competitions. Everybody had to play the same piece, and I remember in 1988 that was 20-somewhat years ago, I played a Norwegian work by Harald Saeverud who was already in his 90s. And the piece that I played was "The Ballad of Revolt." And he grabbed my arm and he says, "Do you know what those accent marks are?" And every time he would sing it, he would pull my arm. He said, "Those were the gunshots," because he experienced World War I. So these were the gunshots. Had I known that if I did not meet the composer? Probably not.

And that led to the latter part of the last decade of the 20th century where I decided to celebrate the millennium with a new work. And I chose Ellen Taaffe Zwilich who was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, first woman to receive Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Juilliard School. She was already leading the composing program at Carnegie Hall. And I approached her about it, and she listened to my recordings before approving to do it, and became the first largest consortium of orchestras put together to commission a new piece of music for this "Millennium Fantasy." And I guess I got bit by the bug.

Robert: Well, you've had many concertos written for you where you've actually been proactive going out there and raising money to have a work commissioned.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Robert: It's a lengthy process. I mean from the time you start an endeavor like this until you're actually on the concert stage playing it is years. Isn't that right?

Jeffrey: It's two to three years.

Robert: Two to three years.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Robert: And you have to raise the money so the composer can grant the work. And I knew you've had incredible luminaries and some famous people that you have associations with, like Keith Emerson and Neil Sedaka, but why don't you give a list of some of the composers that you've had the privilege of working with and having works written for you?

Jeffrey: Yes. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich wrote the "Millennium Fantasy" and then 10 years later, I went back to Ellen and she wrote "Shadows," another work in three movements for piano and orchestra. Charles Strouse, who wrote "Annie" and "Bye Bye Birdie." He was a student of Aaron Copland and Arthur Berger and Nadia Boulanger. And he went from Classical to Broadway, and this piece that was wonderful called "Concerto America" that was premiered with Boston Pops in 2002 after 9/11. Richard Danielpour wrote a concerto which I did with Pacific Symphony. Lowell Liebermann, who I went to Julliard with, he was a composition and piano major. And he wrote his third piano concerto for me, which was commissioned by 17 orchestras in the US and 1 orchestra in Germany making it, I believe, the first commissioned project for an American composer, co-commissioned by an orchestra outside of the US.

And then I went to...I'm trying to remember these, the projects, how they went in line...William Bolcom. And Bill wrote "Prometheus" based on the mythical character of Prometheus. And I asked him for piano orchestra and chorus so I could play something with Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy." And at least 9 or 10 orchestras co-commissioned that work. And then I commissioned a young composer named Jake Runestad who is quite brilliant, again, for piano orchestra and chorus. He decided to pay tribute to veterans, and he became friendly with Brian Turner, who is a poet -- quite a brilliant poet -- but he survived the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And several of the poems are depicted in this work called "Dreams of the Fallen." And the fallen are those who are fallen from society.

So he wrote this work for me. I'm in the process of performing with the commissioning orchestras and choruses. And also Kenneth Fuchs, who was also at Julliard when I was there. And Ken is just writing continuously. So we're going to premiere that in 2015. Jeremy Lubbock wrote a piece for me that I'm premiering next February with Moravian University. Jeremy Lubbock wrote all the wonderful arrangements for Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion and...but a very serious composer. So all these different kinds of artists.

Robert: So what are some of the challenges? Of course, playing works that have no reference. You can't go out and buy a recording of a concerto that has never been performed before. So what is it like going out, playing these new works, compared to playing staples of the repertoire that have been played hundreds of times, thousands of times before?

Jeffrey: Well, the good thing is nobody knows them. Years ago, you didn't have technology, the ability to create an MP3, a demo, a synthesized demo. You had to go into a rehearsal studio and put it all together, and hear what it sounds like. And that's when the composer would start to create a list of a write-up then they would say, "I don't like this. Let's change this. You know, don't do this. Maybe don't play the English one there, or don't double up on it. Let's have one player on that." Now of course, even with Ellen Zwilich's "Millennium Fantasy," I was actually a floppy disk that I was able to use at that time. And she never liked it because it was always like, "Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick." It wasn't quite musical, but I was able to hear from the standpoint of hearing harmony and rhythm. That was wonderful.

Robert: Right. The first time you get together with the orchestra, at least you have some sense of the composition.

Jeffrey: Exactly.

Robert: Other than just trying to decipher the score, you can actually playing with it if you wanted to with the MIDI file, I suppose.

Jeffrey: Exactly. And the quality is much better today.

Robert: Now interestingly, I know a lot of pianists playing contemporary repertoire, they play with the score, and I was just wondering about your observations about the difference between playing with the musical score and playing from memory. What are the pros and cons and your feeling about that? Because I know that the tradition is to play everything from memory and yet with incredibly complex modern works. A lot of times, people use a score. What is your feeling about the difference there?

Jeffrey: I think everybody has their own take on it. Some people feel more comfortable with the music, some people feel more comfortable without it. They say, "No. I can play it without seeing it so I could see what I'm doing." Of course, when you're young, you learn like a sponge. Everything I remember from when I'm young, I remember still.

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: Newer pieces, if you let them go, they're gone, at least for me. But I think for the contemporary pieces, I like to have at least the piano reduction, the piano part with an orchestral reduction so I could see what's going on.

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: To me, it's more like chamber music at that point. And there's more going on than just my part.

Robert: Sure.

Jeffrey: After a while, it does tend to memorize by itself. But memory versus using score, everybody has their own take on it.

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: I mean I will not play Mozart or Bach anymore without score because I do embellishments in their style. I add to it, and a lot of them are written into my scores.

Robert: I see. Do you do any improvisational elements with that or are they all pre-worked out?

Jeffrey: Most of them are pre-worked out, but on the spot I feel more comfortable now doing baroque embellishments.

Robert: Well, you have a wonderful recording of Bach where, for example, in the fifth French Suite, because every movement has A, B, where the A is repeated, the B is repeated, and you also have nice embellishments on the B sections, which I thought was terrific. You also have just gave me a disc I have not had a chance to listen to, of a Chopin...a beautiful selection of Chopin. And we'll have links here for people to be able to check out your wonderful piano playing.

Now, of course the path you've chosen is a unique one which wouldn't suit everyone for a couple of reasons. First of all, not everybody is adept at being able to digest incredibly complex scores that have never been played before. Secondly, not everybody is comfortable, you know, getting on the phone and hounding people for money, and all of that stuff. But I was wondering if you had any advice for budding young pianists. It's such a crowded field, and any kind of words of wisdom should somebody approach? Somebody is accomplished, they have a repertoire, they're wondering, "How could I get to perform?" What's a pianist to do? And not just pianists; all instrumentalists.

Jeffrey: Going to the competitions is a good thing for a few reasons. If you win, it's great. If you don't, it's okay, too. You're meeting new people, you're learning repertoire, you're challenging yourself to a new level. The judges get to hear you in different competitions, and if you make the finals, you get to play with the orchestra. You get to play for the conductor. Maybe they'll have you back. The administration is there. So it's always good to be seen and heard no matter where as much as possible, just to be out there.

Robert: And you won a competition when you were quite young, didn't you?

Jeffrey: A few. You win a few, you lose a few.

Robert: All right.

Jeffrey: But I met a lot of interesting people at all of these competitions. And they're very stressful, but if you could handle it, then it's okay. You know you can handle the rigorous of getting out there on stage at your most nervous point and doing it.

Another thing that's very important is to make friends when you're at your music schools, with as many people as possible, especially composers. If I look back now, the composers that have been commissioned to write concertos for me are the composers I met at Juilliard.

Robert: Right, right.

Jeffrey: And if you stay friendly with them, you never know one could be 1 year, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, and call them up and say, "Would you like to write a concerto for me or a work for a triple concerto for piano trio and orchestra?" There aren't too many.

Robert: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And, "What's your commissioning fee?" And then you have to start the process of approaching as many people as you can. I mean career started before the computers.

Robert: Yes.

Jeffrey: So what did we have? A telephone. What did I do?

Robert: Well, actually you told me a really interesting story years ago about how you won a major competition, and you got management with one of the top management firms in the world. And then you waited, and nothing happened, but you took the bull by the horns. Why don't you tell a little of that story, because I think this is a phenomenal story?

Jeffrey: You know, looking back now, when an agency takes on a new artist -- and they do take on new competition winners -- there are engagements for them to fulfill in contract and set the fees. But I remember being told, you know, "Don't expect things to happen magically so quickly because people don't grab on to a new artist immediately. It takes time." And no two careers are alike.

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: And I'm sure that the management put my name out there and everything. I thought it was wonderful to be a competition winner, but to the presenters of orchestras and alike, "Oh, he's another one." So everybody's conception is different.

Robert: But you got on the phone...back before you could look up anything on the computer, you went direct to the assistants, and started calling conductors randomly at their homes, right? How could that be?

Jeffrey: Well, the reason was because there was repertoire that I was starting to cultivate, like Leroy Anderson's piano concerto know, I thought it would be interesting for them to be able to hear it straight from me about these pieces. You know, managers are wonderful because they could set your fees, they can contract engagements, but it would be very gauche for them to pick up a phone and call a conductor personally about an artist at their home. You can't expect them to do that. And I thought, "Well, then who's supposed to do that?" Me. Who else? And I thought, "See what happens." And they were all very kind and very..."Wow. Where'd you find that concerto? What else are you playing? Can you send me your materials? Let me listen to that."

Robert: So you found that just cold calling famous conductors was not a harrowing experience. In fact, many of them were receptive to what you had to offer.

Jeffrey: Most of the conductors I called were not the conductors who were conducting here at Philharmonic Boston Symphony.

Robert: Okay.

Jeffrey: More of the mid-level orchestras throughout the country, they were accessible and they were very friendly. They were looking for repertoire that was different. How many times can they program the same pieces?

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: And I found out early on that in order to at least make headway into the orchestral scene as a soloist would be to offer pieces that nobody else was offering, whether it's a piece by Leroy Anderson or a new work that was being composed. And I remember one instance a conductor said, "Well, what's the benefit for me to have my orchestra pay to be part of a consortium for a new piece if in two years from now we could just pay for the rental of the score and parts, and engage you then." My answer to him was, "Well, there's a very good reason why your orchestra should do it. Not only because their name appears in the conductor's score forever, but it's good for the community. It shows that you are being proactive in having your orchestra part of the creation of a new work."

It also smiles upon the donors, local grants, state grants, federal grants. When they see that you're part of something bigger than your own community, but of a large national consortium or global in some respects, they tend to want to give you money for other things because they see that you're out of the box.

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: And they ended up participating in the project. But there are good reasons for doing it. It also cultivates new music, which is very important.

Robert: Absolutely.

Jeffrey: And somebody has to pay for it. And if they're going to perform it, why not be part of the funding process? The reason why I went to all these conductors is because I felt it would be more economical to have a lot of orchestras co-commission a new work and pay less, than try to go after three, four or five orchestras that would have to pay more that may say, "No, we can't afford it."

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: So it was more work, but in the end, it was good for all.

Robert: So a combination of being willing to tackle new works, bring them to new audiences, and being an organizer, being a central figure, a leader, is really central. Now, is it possible for somebody who doesn't have that personality to go out there and put themselves out there, and somebody who maybe just loves the traditional repertoire? What chances do they have? Is it just really difficult to have a traditional -- what is deemed a traditional -- career? Because as you well know, the conservatories are training people to play Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, and Beethoven, and all the rest of it; and there are countless pianists playing this standard repertoire in a very high level. What do you suggest for these people?

Jeffrey: You know, with technology, you don't have to necessarily pick up the telephone anymore. You don't have to be assertive that way if it's not in your personality. You can't make somebody do something they feel uncomfortable or it's unnatural for them to do, and they have to want it. You have to want it enough to make yourself do it, but you could send emails, or you could go on a social media and find conductors or orchestras and post things. With technology today, the sky is the limit, and you could reach more people without having to speak to them if you need to. But at some point, you have to be able to speak.

Robert: It helps, doesn't it?

Jeffrey: Well, I was always a shy person when I was young, very inhibited, but over time I overcame that because I felt I had to.

Robert: Necessity. Absolutely. So by the way, what is a good website for people who want to hear your music, find out where you're performing next? If you want to share that with everyone, I'm sure people are going to want to hear you play.

Jeffrey: Yeah. My website is just my name, YouTube has many different videos, either at home practicing or in concert. I don't keep a calendar on my website actually, but if people Google me, they should be able to find a list of concerts. You check usually the last month or...I usually check every 24 hours to see if there's anything that I need to respond to.

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: But usually you could find concerts listed.

Robert: Great. And is there anything else you'd like to share with people out there about the life of a concert pianist in the 21st century, and what you have carved out, and advice to anybody who is up and coming, and wants to be able to make a life in music as you have done for yourself?

Jeffrey: Sure. I mean when I was younger, the dream was you have to play with the biggest orchestras in the biggest concert halls, and have the biggest recording contracts. And now you could record, put your own recordings out. There are venues popping out now all over the country in the most unsuspecting places that you could perform. And there's collaborations happening now amongst the various performing arts communities. You could do a program in an art museum based on the artwork that may be in that museum.

Robert: Right.

Jeffrey: You could collaborate with dance. You can do more collaborations in smaller venues. And I think that you'll see more performing arts series sprouting up here and there.

Robert: That's right. The fusion of different styles which has proliferated world music and such, but more than that, you're talking about actually different art forms coming together, which I think is a beautiful concept, something that many composers explored earlier but where now finally technologically it's possible to do this much more effectively than...Alexander Scriabin of course had a vision of a complete multimedia experience that he was frustrated never being able to really achieve. So that is great advice, Jeffrey. It's been a real pleasure having you here, and we look forward to your performance tomorrow with the Pacific Symphony. And all of you out there, look for You want to hear some phenomenal performances, one of the world's great pianists as you will discover when you listen to his performances. Thank you so much for coming here and joining us here...

Jeffrey: Pleasure. Thank you.

Robert: and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on August 25, 2016 @7:13 am PST
Very interesting interview. I hear Jeffrey Biegel quite often on WETA 90.9 FM, now I know what he looks like!
Dick Blocher on August 24, 2016 @8:35 am PST
I really appreciate the sharing of this interview, with me.This was fantastic, I have never been exposed to a real professional pianist, before today. Thank you very much, Robert,you are truly a great pianist also. Respectfully, Dick Blocher
Robert Estrin - host, on December 9, 2016 @12:28 pm PST
Thank you - Jeff Biegel was so kind to share his experience.
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