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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Best Pandemic Efforts - Pianist Jeffrey Biegel’s adaptable commissioning projects

With a nod to challenging times, concerned industry leaders and scarce budgets, pianist Jeffrey Biegel offers exciting and scalable, new commissioning projects. Geared to give living composers, orchestras and performing artists some new perspectives, Biegel turns dire times into creative opportunities.

All photo credits courtesy Jeffrey Biegel, with the exception of Photo: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from the Collection of the Supreme court of the US, with permission by Patricia McCabe at the Supreme Court for image use, RBG and Denyce Graves collage by@annetteback / , or otherwise indicated. Photo Credit Title Cover: Ilona Oltuski

“This is not just about another new piece,” says Biegel. This is about the impact of 2020, how we deal with it, and what the future holds. It has more to do with us as humans than just musicians,” explains Biegel, and mentions two new projects, tackled during the pandemic: Peter Boyer’s Rhapsody in Red, White and Blue and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’ commission of a work commemorating the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “These two projects represent a good deal of soul searching for the present and the future,” says Biegel.

Rhapsody in Red, White and Blue, a 15-minute work for piano and orchestra was announced in February from the composer, Peter Boyer, to be premiered by Biegel as a standalone work, or to be programmed alongside George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The iconic work, originally for solo piano and jazz band, was a commission by bandleader Paul Whiteman and orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, and was premiered by Gershwin at the piano in 1924. It established Gershwin's worldwide reputation as a composer and has since become one of the most popular of all American concert works. Boyer’s new Rhapsody, connotating the classic, is expected to be finalized by 2023, in time for the Gershwin original’s centennial.

The project and its title were conceived by Biegel, with the goal to assemble a nationwide consortium of orchestras and conductors to perform Peter Boyer’s new work. Through the American Composers Forum, the established American pianist and Professor at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College was able to secure full funding from private donors, as well as lead support by the Billy Rose Foundation.

This creative funding model avoids the customary co-commissioning fees for interested orchestras, only paying the standard rental fee and the sought-after pianist’s performance fee, whose performance of Kenneth Fuch’s Piano Concerto: Spiritualist, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta, featured on the Naxos recording, won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium in 2019.

The Rhapsody is adding to Boyer’s American themed collection of works, which includes his successful, Grammy nominated work Ellis Island: The Dream of America, produced by PBS’ Great Performances series with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and, A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers, which was a Boston Pops 125th anniversary commission, narrated by actors including Robert de Niro, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin. His Fanfare for Tomorrow, for the United States Marine Band, sounded in Biden’s presidential inauguration.

With orchestras slowly re-emerging from their slumber of pandemic lockdown, the Rhapsody in Red, White and Blue, will provide an attractive and most accessible performance opportunity for many orchestras in the US and abroad.

It is, by far, not the first instance, Biegel’s proactive entrepreneurship has matched his artistic caliber. Already in 1998, he created the largest commissioning project around Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Millennium Fantasy. Premiered in 2000 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Biegel exhibited a successful model of achievable funding through joint venture. Twenty-seven orchestras covering twenty-five states co-commissioned this new work ringing in the new Millennium. In 2000, he followed up with a consortium intended to include a nationwide orchestral participation of 50 states for Concerto America, by Tony Award winning Charles Strouse. Having sent a press notice to every orchestra in the country, he secured the required funding for the composer’s fee from private sponsorship, allowing orchestras to join the project without the need to pay a ‘buy-in’ to support the commission. However, the events of September 11, 2001, struck a deep nerve throughout the country, and, as a result, Biegel felt it was not the appropriate time to pursue such an endeavor. The Concerto America was premiered by the Boston Pops in June, 2002.

Biegel’s pioneering method was soon picked up by the American League of Orchestras, creating the Ford Made in America project. In 2005, Ford Made in America, a partnership program of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer, with funding from Ford Motor Company Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, among others, took a newly written piece by composer Joan Tower to 65 orchestras throughout the country.

The pianist in his element Photo: JOE ABATE/HERALD

Biegel, continued his three-dimensional commissioning ventures, turning him into a true champion of premieres of the works by some of the most established American composers, including William Bolcom, Richard Danielpour, Kenneth Fuchs, Lowell Liebermann, Lucas Richman, Jake Runestad, Peter Schickele, Charles Strouse, Christopher Theofanidis, and Ellen Taafe Zwilich, among others.

Like many of Biegel’s projects that align his wide network of music professionals built during his long-lasting career, his latest project with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich comes full circle, renewing Biegel’s previously successful collaborations with the first female Pulitzer Prize winning composer. (In 1983, she received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Symphony No.1)

It marks Zwilich’s third commissioned work for Biegel, spanning two decades. It also manifested a “light at the end of the tunnel,” for Biegel, “and the hope of new beginnings,” he says.

During the tristesse of the pandemic, only interrupted by his series of #StayAtHome Saturday recitals, and original solo piano music he composed, Biegel shared, “Many things happened spontaneously, but seemed like they were destined to happen.” Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Photo by Bill Keefrey

Photo: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from the Collection of the Supreme court of the US, with permission by Patricia McCabe at the Supreme Court for image use.

He had called Zwilich in early October 2020 with the proposition, to consort a commissioning project in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Biegel released a statement: “Justice Ginsburg’s passing, and her legacy, have indeed inspired many to preserve her values and her lifelong dedication to our Constitution and humanity,” and recalls the details: “Ellen said the idea gave her goosebumps,” saying: “I don’t always get [that way], but when I do, I have to say YES to a project.” The composition was to include piano and voice, possibly with spoken texts, taken from the context of Ginsburg’s many writings. In time, Zwilich decided to not have spoken word, but rather, all singing. Justice Ginsburg’s son, Jim, suggested to Biegel that he might approach mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, famously Justice Ginsburg’s favorite operatic star, for a collaboration. She spontaneously agreed, saying:” For Ruth, of course, count me in…” says Biegel. Both Zwilich and Graves were recently honored at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards.: Graves as part of the cast of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Best Opera Recording, and Zwilich, for her Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet with the Pacifica Quartet’s Contemporary Voices, winning Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

Press Photo: Denyce Graves honoring the Supreme Court Justice at the RBG Memorial Service

To start off the project and to attract potential donors, Biegel created a Facebook group dedicated to Justice Ginsburg for this musical endeavor, connecting with people who respect RBG, as she is widely known around the world. The social media group features different visual artists who share their inspiration with images of her. Biegel approached conductors he knew and orchestras. “Conductors and administrators were not thinking yet about the future, unclear about how many people would be allowed on stage. Most of them were hoping to integrate their 2020-21 season into 2021-22,” he says. But approaching the Dallas Symphony, through their CEO, Kim Noltemy, proved successful. Biegel had known Noltemy, who had previously worked with the Boston Pops at the time Biegel performed with them. An email from Dallas’ Artistic Administrator, Peter Czornyi followed, which Biegel responded to, with an in-person phone call. “Call me old fashioned, I maintain that voices and human touch far outweigh emails. We were able to directly work our ideas back and forth, and after clearing any permissions with the Ginsburg Family, at times through a simultaneous process of tenacity and magic, this project started to take shape,” describes Biegel.

For the first anniversary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing in September 2020, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will perform their compositional debut of Zwilich’s work, for piano, voice and orchestra, in 2021.

Inspired by the progress with the RBG commissioning project, Biegel composed a solo piano piece, Reflection of Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which had its recent online premiere Stars in the House, with Seth Rudetsky.

“This piece is created by turning every letter of Justice Ginsburg’s names into musical alphabet equivalents. As the piece deepens, listen for a brief quote of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the climax builds toward two big chords played with the entire arm length of the right arm, symbolizing the ‘long arm of the law,’” Biegel wrote. “In the penultimate measure of the piece, her nickname, Kiki, appears in four high register tones before the final measure.”

In his typical modest manner, Biegel like to update his Facebook group:

“I’m certainly not on any level to the great composers, but what I have learned…is that the great composers might have revised their music if they had more opportunities to revisit them,”

The roots of his mission, being actively involved in the living composer’s work, to perform it, and to facilitate the commissioning process, was instilled in Biegel, early in his life.

In 1973, a budding young pianist, Biegel, played a new piece by Meyer Kupferman. “Getting his feedback and suggestions was priceless,” he remembers. The experience certainly impacted the course of his own career.

“The engagements are just the icing on the cake after putting the commissioning project together from start to finish,” he says. “The real work, securing the composers, their fees, the rental fees from orchestras, donors and collaborating orchestras…that amounts to weeks, months, years. Had I been working as an agent to the composers, getting their work, securing their fees, it would have been an income boost. And it affords opportunities for orchestras to take part in commissioning projects for their audiences…it’s a win-win all around. I love the challenge, and feel part of something bigger, allowing others to be part of it as well. Orchestras, who become part of the birthing process of new musical creations, can give their communities a sense of ownership of the new piece. The orchestra’s names are inscribed in every conductor score in perpetuity, along with the donors’,” says Biegel and concludes with: “Surely, I always tell composers, this project is not about me, and sorry to say, not about you either. We are creating something important together to add to the ongoing, ever-evolving continuum of music. One day, people will look back and see what was done, so they could perform and listen to music from this part of the 21st century. While I love to perform, I did it for reasons much bigger than any one of us. Music is much bigger than us.”


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