Thursday, November 28, 2013

Charlotte Symphony Introduces Guest Artists to the Community, Part 2

Maestro Ponti, me and friend Maggie at the party
I was still all aflutter over Robert Bonfiglio's amazing performance on the harmonica at the CSO Gala when my friend Maggie and I had the opportunity to meet Jeffrey Biegel, the soloist at the CSO's opening concert.  (The CSO hosted a party for patrons, and Biegel was on hand to give attendees a preview of his virtuosity on the piano.) I had spoken with Biegel a couple of weeks earlier in connection with an article I was writing about the concert for Florida Weekly, so I already knew his amazing background.

The fact Biegel can play the piano at all, much less at virtuoso levels, is somewhat remarkable.  Until the age of three, he had extremely limited hearing.   While not totally deaf, his eardrums did not vibrate due to an accumulation of fluid.   He says it was like wearing thick ear muffs all the time.   Luckily, the problem was diagnosed and was able to be treated surgically.   Soon after his hearing was restored, Biegel became enamored with the piano.  He piggybacked on his sister's lessons, teaching himself to play by ear.  When he was seven, he started formal piano lessons, and he became a student of Adele Marcus at the Juillard School.  (Ms. Marcus taught numerous other well-known pianists, including Neil Sedaka, with whom Biegel has worked.)  Jeffrey shared that one of his most exciting gigs was performing for Lucille Ball at her home a few months before her death.  Lucy was shocked—and tickled-- that he could recite episodes of “I Love Lucy” to her in their entirety.  

Jeffrey Biegel at play
Jeffrey is a quiet and unassuming guy -- until he gets to the keyboard.   To have the chance to sit three feet away from him while he played was a remarkable experience.  I found myself thinking something ridiculous like, "This guy is a real concert pianist."   The way his hands alternately flew over and caressed the keys was amazing to watch (and made me cringe a bit as I recalled the total lack of emotion with which I played the piano when I took lessons).   He played Chopin and Gershwin and a crazy fast piece called "Rush Hour in Shanghai."    It was a real treat and definitely primed me for hearing him play Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at the concert.

During the pre-concert lecture, Biegel shared a bit of the history of "Rhapsody in Blue."  Band leader Paul Whiteman had approached Gershwin with a request to compose a concerto-like piece for an all jazz performance to be given in February 1924.  Gershwin agreed, but it kind of slipped his mind.  His brother Ira read in the New York Post on January 3, 1924 that the upcoming concert would include a piece composed by George.   Gershwin got to work on a train ride from New York to Boston--you can hear the sounds of the train tracks in the piece if you listen for them--and the composition was completed in a mere three weeks.

The version of "Rhapsody in Blue" that Biegel played at the concert was the version written and performed by George himself.  (Gershwin's publishers edited 50 measures from the music to move the piece along a bit more quickly.)  I will admit that I don't know the music well enough to know the difference between the popularized and original versions , but I do know a masterful performance when I hear one.  To say that he received a standing ovation doesn't capture the excitement and enthusiasm with which his performance was received.   If you're interested in hearing Biegel play the piece --on one of the Sing for Hope pianos that was situated outside by the Brooklyn Bridge -- click here.  (I have never heard of Sing for Hope before, but it is an organization whose mission is to make all forms of the arts accessible to the public.  Last summer 88 hand-painted pianos were placed in locations across the five boroughs of Manhattan.  Anyone could play the pianos--from beginners to concert pianists like Biegel.  At the end of the project, the pianos were donated to schools, hospitals and community centers.  Incredibly cool.)  

The CSO's first season with Maestro Ponti at the helm has gotten off to an incredible start.  I can't wait to hear what he has in store for us.   

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