Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Perhaps having a hearing deficit until the age of three connected me to vibrations of musical sounds before understanding the softer language of English. Following surgery, English became my native language, second only to my feeling most at ease to communicate through music.
Listening to my mother sing in a coloratura bell-like voice as she sang along with records of her favourite singers must have inspired me when creating bell-like singing sound on the piano. Equally inspiring was my father, who loved the music of Gershwin. Although I played Rhapsody in Blue my entire life, it wasn’t until I was in my 50s when he heard me perform it and said, ‘You finally got that style!”
Over the years, my teachers inspired me, and finally, my teacher at The Juilliard School, Adele Marcus. She represented the traditions of the ‘Golden Age’ of playing, beautiful sound, soaring vocal lines, and an impeccable command of the keyboard through all the periods of music and their composers. The recordings of her teachers, Josef Lhevinne and Artur Schnabel certainly added to the inspiration. There have been two conductors who reflected an inner sense of the human element through their subtle motions in conducting: Weston Noble for choir, and Carl St. Clair for choir and orchestra.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenges include my striving perhaps too hard for some results but allowing myself to evolve into whomever I am meant to be as a musician. Letting go and letting the career path to happen naturally have been important challenges, but I was never one to sit back and let others make things happen for me. My pet phrase which came after many years of working hard to create a niche in the music world is ‘follow YOUR yellow brick road’. Trying to find my voice and share that voice has been a challenge, yet, I have come to realize at age 60 that things take time to develop, and careers are not just about a specific moment or short term in one’s life. It is a journey, and a combination of many things.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I don’t have any specific performances or recordings I am most proud of. Each recording is like a child and nurtured to fruition. Of course, my 1986 New York recital debut as the third recipient of the then William Petschek Piano Debut Award from The Juilliard School at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, remains a highlight as a formal debut in NYC. My family, teacher and friends were there, in a sold-out concert hall. What I am most proud of is that I never buckled under the pressure of trying to fit into a mould or do exactly what everyone else was doing. Because I was not able to hear at 100% in my formative years, I was already self-trained to think out of the box. I don’t do this because it is a gimmick, rather, I love many styles of music, and embrace that passion through performances, recordings, and commissioning new music by composers of different styles.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I feel very comfortable in many styles of music by composers of those style, be it Baroque through the present, and pop composers as well. Over many years, I finally felt good about embellishing the music by J S Bach and Mozart. For me, I need a phrase that can be sung, something an audience can remember. I don’t mind avant-garde atonal music but feel best when there is a vocal line which I can bring forth from the piano.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I feel the inspiration on stage, as though the composer’s spirit may be present in some way. Not always, but occasionally stronger at times than others.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It is mostly based on what I am asked to perform. It takes the pressure off of myself!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
For me, it doesn’t matter the venue. A room is a room, a piano is a piano. I am not one to choose favourite things because each experience has a magic of its own.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
In 1997, I created the first classical livestream recitals which were seen online from Steinway Hall in New York, and, in 1998, from Amsterdam. The development of technology and social media, YouTube and other performing platforms, have enabled us to share classical music with larger audiences not limited to concert halls. This will continue to evolve as technology does.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There were many. Performing in the final rounds of competitions were surely most memorable, because by the time one reached the final round, we had a support team, audiences following us throughout the competitions. We became like family. In general, feeling at one with the music, and the piano communicating our innermost feelings through sound are the most memorable concert experiences.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Follow YOUR yellow brick road. Stay humble, don’t let others stop you from following your inner voice. Network, make good decisions, become friends with each other. Instrumentalists – become friends with composers. Learn who the staff members are with orchestras, so you can write to them. Learn music that means something to you, and not only traditional music.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
My parents taught me that strong work ethic and treating people with utmost respect would be the keys to success.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
It is hard to say. I would like to have performed in Australia, New Zealand, other European countries, do more recordings, continue building my legacy, and teach other gifted pianists the traditions I was taught to keep those tradition alive for future generations.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is your most treasured possession?
I would have to say the photo of Josef Lhevinne to my teacher, Adele Marcus. He signed it to her when she was his student.
What is your present state of mind?
Keep going. Never stop dreaming, work hard for things that may not exist yet. There is always motion in the mind.
Postcript: creativity during the pandemic
When a global event takes place, such as the Covid 19 pandemic, it forces us to follow new rules, lockdowns etc. This affects us in different ways. For me, within weeks of being in lockdown with cancelled performances, I found myself at the piano composing – not something I have done before for piano solo music. In the past, I arranged music for solo piano of holiday music, and composed choral music for a cappella choirs and choral arrangements for the holiday season and original choral holiday music. I wrote a “Waltz of Hope” in March 2020, followed two weeks later with “Waltz of Hope no. 2”.
In April 2020 for more than twelve weekends, I performed recitals from my home, performed on social media platforms. All the while, I continued to raise funds for two commissioning projects: Peter Boyer’s “Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue” for the 2023-24 season, and, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg” for mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, myself and orchestra for October 2021. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-commissioned the Zwilich work, and invited me to perform my solo work composed in October 2020, “Reflection of Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg”, but for piano and orchestra. One of my students at Brooklyn College, Harrison Sheckler, orchestrated around the piano part.
During the summer 2021, I added to the ‘RBG’ piece with two more solo pieces, “Reflection of Freedom: An Ode to John Fitzgerald Kennedy” and, “Reflection of Equality: An Ode to Martin Luther King”. They are also orchestrated and evolved into “Three Reflections for Piano and Orchestra”. So, we never know what can result from things that happen along the journey. While following health guidelines, trying to stay alive, came music I might not have composed if not for what happened in the world. Aside from studio teaching, I would not have known that my students would become part of the outside world with me, with Harrison orchestrating around my solo piano music, and, another gifted pupil, Zhi Chen, creating the most incredible audio demos for these pieces using a software programme to sound like ‘live’ musicians.
The life of Jeffrey Biegel takes its roots from age three, when Mr. Biegel could neither hear nor speak, until corrected by surgery. The ‘reverse Beethoven’ phenomenon explains his life’s commitment to music, having heard only vibrations in his formative years. The year of 2020 focused on composition and commissioning projects: original “Waltzes of Hope”, “Sonatina”, and “Three Reflections: JFK, RBG and MLK” for solo piano, and for piano and orchestra, orchestrations by Harrison Sheckler. Autumn 2021 sees the world premieres of his “Reflection of Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg” with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg” for mezzo-soprano, piano and orchestra in tribute to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Also, the world premiere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Shadows” newly arranged for piano and seven players with the Idaho State Civic Symphony.
Considered the most prolific artist of his generation, Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, conferred the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters upon Mr. Biegel in 2015, for his achievements in performance, recordings, chamber music, champion of new music, composer, arranger and educator.