He spotted her in a faraway field and fell immediately to dreaming.
It was 1910, and Claude Debussy had already developed a unique musical style, an approach to composition that broke away from well established conventions. The French pianist was a celebrity of his time in Europe and beyond, an artist who’d garnered international praise for his dreamy, lyrical compositions and his novel approach to pitch.
But Debussy’s celebrity didn’t make him any less of an eccentric or a dreamer. The sight of a young woman with golden hair set his heart racing and his creative mind working at full speed.
“He sees a beautiful young maiden in the early morning sunshine in the field. She knows she’s unobserved,” said world renowned pianist Jeffrey Siegel, who’s set to perform Debussy’s composition “Girl With the Flaxen Hair” as part of the “Keyboard Coversation” series at the Arvada Center on Nov. 7. The composition captures that early morning moment, Siegel said, that simple and brief point in time when Debussy’s heart went out to a stranger. “He captures in sound this fleeting moment … It’s tender. It’s adoring. It’s gentle and it’s not seductive.”
Siegel is an accomplished musician who’s played everywhere from Berlin to Moscow. But the Chicago native also has a knack for storytelling, for giving context and background to some of history’s finest musical compositions. It’s a skill he’s brought to Colorado for twenty five years in the form of the “Keyboard Conversations” concerts, a performance series that relies just as much on narrative as it does on music.
“These keyboard conversations are concerts with commentary. These are not lectures with musical examples,” Siegel said. “Every work of the program is performed in its entirety. What I say about the music is a preface in non-technical language. The purpose of it is to make for a more meaningful listening experience than a pleasant ear wash of sound.”
Siegel finds the stories that bring the music to immediate life. He’s explored Beethoven’s stormy biography and chatted about the uniquely American life of composer George Gershwin. Siegel has spoken of the context behind Rimsky-Korsakov’s frenetic “Flight of the Bumblebee” and he’s dissected the structures behind J.S. Bach’s spellbinding compositions. Next year, he’ll play a concert devoted to “Schubert in the Age of the Sound Bite” and one entirely focused on waltzes, marches and tangos.
For the upcoming concert devoted to Debussy, a show that will include performances of the well-known “Clair De Lune” as well as “Fireworks” and “Island of Joy,” Siegel won’t have to struggle with making the music palatable or approachable.
“He is a composer whose music immediately enchants the ear. He seduces you with the beauty of the music,” Siegel said. “When you think of a piece like ‘Clair De Lune,’ which is known to everybody whether they know if he wrote it or what the title is, it immediately hypnotizes the listener. It’s a very interesting piece to talk about it. No one would be more surprised at the worldwide sustained popularity of the piece than the composer. He didn’t like the piece.”
Such notes and factoids are what give the “Keyboard Conversations” shows their spirit and purpose, Siegel said. In approaching the music of Debussy – compositions that eschewed rigid structures and even played with basic matters of pitch and key – the keyboard is the ideal medium for the message, he added.
“More than any other composer, he is hard to transcribe, because of the sound itself,” Siegel said. “The choice of the medium of sound – whether it’s a violin or an orchestra or a flute or a solo piano – you can transcribe the music, but it loses that unique dimension that he had in mind when he wrote that piece of music for this intrument. Perhaps more than any other, he’s hurt by transcriptions.”
The purity and sound of the piano is a central factor in Debussy’s music. Siegel will only stray from the keyboard long enough to tell a few stories before he brings that music to life with focus and passion for Colorado audiences this week.
The “Keyboard Conversations” concert “Claude Debussy: Clair De Lune, Fireworks and Beyond!” featuring Jeffrey Siegel. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd. in Arvada. Tickets start at $29. Information: 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.