When Jeffrey Biegel (B.M. ’83, M.M. ’84, piano) made his debut in 1983 performing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto with the Juilliard Philharmonia in the old Alice Tully Hall, it was more than your run-of-the-mill competition success story. For Biegel and his family, it was a miracle he was even able to speak or hear, let alone execute one of the most treacherous works in the whole of the piano literature. Biegel, 48, was born deaf and mute, and were it not for corrective surgery administered when he was 3 years old, his career would likely never have been possible. Given his inauspicious early years, Biegel’s innumerable accomplishments as a pianist, composer, teacher, arranger, and entrepreneur are even more remarkable. Currently on the faculty at Brooklyn College, Biegel continues to defy the conventional mold of the classically trained pianist, putting his creative energy into a number of new projects and initiatives that have broken precedent in his profession. In effect, Biegel has earned the distinct privilege of writing his own job description. In a recent interview conducted via e-mail, piano master’s student Benjamin Laude asked Biegel about the many facets of his unique career.
Benjamin Laude: In 1997 you broke new ground by delivering the first “cyberecital,” a classical concert broadcast via the Internet in streaming audio and video. Thirteen years later, you are giving private piano instruction to students across the world using Skype. What has been the impact of technology on your career, and why do you think it is important to the classical music industry?
Jeffrey Biegel: We are still in the infancy of new technology and await the many possibilities which lie ahead. In music, I envision worldwide performing arts series becoming available online in “live” format. This will allow arts organizations to increase their global presence and, perhaps, add much needed revenue through low-price online ticket sales. Of course, the “live” experience is incomparable; however, at a distance, it may be a way toward building new audiences. There’s no reason why the art of the recital cannot be revived vigorously through Internet recital series—which is why I created the first online audio/video recital.
B.L.: Your drive for innovative projects has gone beyond technology and includes your dedication to new music. Talk about the consortium of orchestras you have organized over the past decade to co-commission new works for piano and orchestra.
J.B.: Having learned new works by living composers since the age of 12, I remember quite vividly playing Meyer Kupferman’s 1973 Sonata Mystikos for the composer. This certainly provided the roots for my appreciation of living composers and dedication for fostering performances of new works. While recording Lalo Schifrin’s Concerto No. 2 with Lalo conducting, this furthered my desire to help bring new works into the repertoire. In 1999, I created the largest consortium of orchestras ever assembled. Through daily diligent phone and e-mail contacts, every orchestra in the U.S. became aware that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich would compose the Millennium Fantasy. I aimed for all 50 states; however, the project resulted in 27 orchestras, which was a first for that time period. This was followed by commissions by Charles Strouse (Concerto America, 2002), Lowell Liebermann (Concerto No. 3, 2006), Richard Danielpour (Mirrors for Piano and Orchestra, 2010), and William Bolcom (Prometheus for Piano, Orchestra, and Chorus, 2010). I am now working on the Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Global Commissioning Project, whose mission is to join orchestras in worldwide cultural diplomacy, in addition to keeping the cost per orchestra affordable during tough economic times. Having many orchestras participate in these projects keeps share costs low and allows for multiple performances of these new compositions.
B.L.: While experimenting with new technology and spearheading initiatives to commission new works, you have also balanced a career as a composer and arranger. How have these activities complemented your work as a performer and teacher?
J.B.: Composing and arranging music has provided a creator’s mentality, in addition to re-creating music by other composers. From my own work in composition, I find it extraordinary to make each performance as though it were the premiere of the work. Editing works for the Schirmer Performance Editions further enabled me to understand every articulation, phrase mark, tempo indication, and other aspects of composition in my teaching. My students have utmost respect for the printed score, and are allowed to interpret as they wish according to the composer’s intentions. What I enjoy most about teaching is to provide a sense of individual quality of sound for each of my students, in keeping with the time period of the music they are playing.
B.L.: The innovative spirit of your career has solidified your reputation as a kind of musical entrepreneur. What projects do you have in mind for the future, and how do you hope your initiatives affect the state of classical music in the years to come?
J.B.: For me, the word “classical” is generic. We have new audiences born only in the 1990s, and they have little knowledge of the legendary names of the 20th century which were our daily heroes and legends. I have recently created a new piano trio, Trio21, whose mission is to uphold the traditions of the great piano trios, but also to incorporate a new sound via repertoire by composers from various styles and backgrounds. One idea I have for the future is to have a new work composed for two juxtaposed piano trios, performed together to create a new sound for chamber music. I also hope to expand my global teaching using technology as it advances to finer proportions of sound and compatibility. As technology improves, it will enable our trio, for one, to rehearse from distances among the three via the Internet. If we can get the basic tempi and some fine nuances accomplished via the Internet, if we are spread out by distances, it will make the on-site rehearsals much more efficient before the actual performances and recordings, I believe.
B.L.: Looking back in time for a moment, you had the privilege to study at Juilliard with the revered pianist and teacher Adele Marcus, herself a pupil of the greats Josef Lhévinne and Artur Schnabel. Are you self-conscious of your place in this unique lineage of pianistic legacy, and do you feel it has had an impact on your artistry?
J.B.: The legacy of these pianistic giants is certainly part of everything I feel and exhibit about music. Their technique was superlative and the quality of sound they produced was unsurpassable. Their standards were so high, it seemed impossible at times to achieve. However, I have raised the bar for myself and my students insofar as listening and producing sound, and in choosing breathable tempi that allow the music to emerge naturally and unaffected. I certainly hope these legendary figures of yesteryear are watching over us and appreciating our upholding of their legacies. This level of finesse will always be part of my daily devotion to making music and teaching its legacy to the next generations. Being part of this lineage reminds me on a daily basis that the traditions must continue. I realize through my own compositions, performances, and recordings, the legacy of sound recordings and printed music and editions we leave behind for future generations.