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Shared Commitment/Shared Exposure: Pianist Jeffrey Biegel Initiates New Opportunities For Composers And Performers

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When it comes to engaging his organizational talents to advance classical music worldwide, there is no stopping pianist Jeffrey Biegel.

At times compared to legendary American pianist Van Cliburn, who won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, thus creating a milestone in pianistic achievement for America, Biegel’s "grand style" has made him a very successful performing and recording artist. But, as his transcriptions and other excursions into less-than-conventional forms prove, his range of musical expression is not limited to one style or activity alone. On his long list of achievements we find composing and arranging next to his many piano performances, and time and again the word "first" when again he has broken new ground. 

Such was the case when, in 1997, Biegel used Steinway Hall in New York City as his base for creating the first worldwide piano recital, at the time touted to have been the first live audio/video concert on the web. Further pushing the envelope, in 1999 he created the first large consortium project, joining 27 orchestras in 25 US cities.

"Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first woman to receive the coveted Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1983, composed the 'Millennium Fantasy' for me," Mr. Biegel explained when describing how this project (which will culminate in a September 2010 CD release by Naxos) came into being.

"I had decided that it would be wonderful to commission a new work for piano and orchestra with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who was a great figure in the American music scene, and especially in New York, at the time. … we soon spoke at great length about my idea to create the largest consortium of orchestras in the USA for a single work – to celebrate the millennium."

To provide her with an overview of his work, Biegel sent Zwilich his recordings of Beethoven, Prokofiev, Leroy Anderson, and Lalo Schifrin’s Second Piano Concerto. After listening to the recordings, Zwilich rang Biegel’s partner in the project, Jeffrey James, and green-lit her contribution. "It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship between Ms. Zwilich and me," Biegel remembers.

On September 22, 2000, Biegel premiered Zwilich’s "Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra," playing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Jesus Lopez-Cobos in Cincinnati. In light of the great success of the premiere, Cincinnati’s mayor proclaimed the following day Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Day and presented the composer with the key to the city. The success of Zwilich’s "Millennium Fantasy" performance in 2000, up to then the largest cooperative consortium of orchestras playing together, led to the creation of a whole array of further commissions.

In November 2000, letters were sent to orchestras all over the US, aiming to turn the 25-state concept into a 50-state event. "Concerto America," scored by Tony Award winner Charles Strouse, came fully funded, relieving orchestras of the burden of raising monies for its creation.
The Boston Pops had already agreed to premiere "Concerto America" with the Honolulu Symphony in 2002, when September 11, 2001 put an end to Jeffrey Biegel’s ambitious plan.

He recalls: "We stopped approaching orchestras directly after September 11, 2001. At the time, it seemed the appropriate thing to do. I waited three weeks to phone Mr. Strouse, assuming he had abandoned the work after having seen the World Trade Center aflame from his Manhattan apartment. On the contrary; he said he was changing the middle section from happy to quite tragic."

Another concerto project followed in 2003, this time planned as an internationally co-commissioned concerto – the Concerto No. 3, Opus 95 by Lowell Liebermann.

Like Biegel, Liebermann had also attended the Juilliard School in New York, and their paths had crossed often. Says Biegel, "What’s most enjoyable in my recollection is when Lowell would see me practicing something in a piano practice room; he would enter with a new piece he had just written. He would ask me to play it through a little, and asked my opinion. And unfailingly it was always a terrific new work."

Liebermann’s Concerto No. 3 was eventually co-commissioned by 17 US orchestras, and one German orchestra. Following the concerto's world premiere with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andreas Delfts in 2006, the 2007 performance of the Schleswig-Holstein Landestheater Orchester in Flensburg, Germany gave the project its international dimension. Currently, plans are underway to record the concerto during the 2011-2012 US concert season.

On the topic of co-commissioning works of music, Jeffrey Biegel has this to say: "By now it seems inevitable that the future course spells out more projects based on this kind of very efficient collaboration." And he adds, “I envision global commissioning projects to bring new musical compositions to cities worldwide, all the while keeping each member’s cost toward the new works affordable. This also bridges many lands in cultural diplomacy, making music a cornerstone of collaboration."

For now, it looks like Jeffrey Biegel is planning his next steps in this process by celebrating the success of his very first project with Zwilich.

"Returning to Ellen [Taaffe Zwilich] to compose a new work for piano and orchestra seemed a logical choice to me. Five orchestras have thus far committed to being in the consortium for this 2011-2012-2013 endeavor, and orchestras worldwide are being contacted as this article is being written. This work, which will be premiered by the Louisiana Philharmonic in 2011/2012, creates a great opportunity for orchestras to join in. In this dire economy, it has become increasingly difficult to commission new works throughout the U.S. – and globally, I might add – from a composer of Ms. Zwilich’s stature," Biegel states. He adds, "A creation of a so-to-speak global alliance of symphony orchestras will also promote commissions of new music from composers from various parts of the world."

The tireless Jeffrey Biegel reminds me to mention that his very next project is not far away: "For Trio21, we have a new commission for piano trio for our inaugural season of concerts in 2011-12, by the fast-rising composer, Kenneth Fuchs."

Biegels’s Trio21, with violinist Judy Kang and cellist Robert deMaine, might indeed expand the co-commissioning concept to include chamber group co-commissions worldwide. "My goal has always been to bring the world as close together as possible through music – music we all know, and new music never performed," Biegel concludes.

And that’s exactly what he is doing …




Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s composition, and Mr. Biegel’s first consortium project, "Millennium Fantasy," was recorded with the Florida State University Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Jimenez in 2009 and released as part of a collection of three Zwilich works for digital download by Naxos in February 2010: "Millennium Fantasy," written for Jeffrey Biegel in 2000; "Peanuts Gallery," a six-movement piece in tribute to the characters of Charles M. Schulz (both performed by Jeffrey Biegel); and "Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra," performed by pianists Read Gainsford and H.L.Williams. The CD release is planned for September, 2010.

Other projects include Richard Danielpour’s "Mirrors for Piano and Orchestra," jointly commissioned by private donors and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra (world premiere February, 2010), and the world premiere of William Bolcom’s "Prometheus for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus" with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Pacific Chorale, scheduled for November, 2010.

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About Ilona Oltuski

  • Sean Hickey

    Wonderful article, Ilona. And bravo Jeffrey. It was good to see Ellen at the ASCAP event last week at the Times Center. Very glad to see Trio21 stuff happening. I’m beginning my commission for piano quartet now.

  • dave4698

    A wonderful pianist! I’d love to meet him!