Times Music Writer

Dealing with the controversy of Robert Schumann's first and last thoughts about his piano music, Jeffrey Siegel is unequivocal:

"The younger Schumann was almost always right. As he grew older--and his mental health deteriorated--he seemed to lose touch with his better musical instincts."

Siegel, the 43-year-old American pianist who continues a sixth season of "Keyboard Conversations" at Pepperdine University at Malibu on Monday night, has done considerable research to back up his opinions.

Much of that research grew out of the pianist's musical curiosity, "just for my own edification," as he says. Some of it was serendipitous, as when he visited Budapest several years ago and discovered the manuscript of Liszt's "Ernani" Fantasy, which he has now introduced to both sides of the Atlantic and will bring to the West Coast in March.

Recently, Siegel's ongoing research into musical subjects has found a substantial outlet. "Keyboard Conversations," the talk-and-play recital format he began to use in the late 1970s--at first in only a handful of his annual public performances--has become very popular.

"Of the more than 90 concerts I play every season," says the personable virtuoso, who was trained in his native Chicago, at Juilliard and in London, "probably 30 are now 'Keyboard Conversations.' "

What has made the series popular, Siegel believes, is that "music lovers always want to improve their skills--they want to make a good experience even more meaningful. The 'Conversations' seem to address this desire."

Monday night, Siegel's second program of the Malibu season offers talk and performances on "The Romanticism of Mozart."

"I enjoy these 'Conversations' tremendously, though I don't think they are going to replace recitals, which I still play a lot of. But they are certainly well received."

In the large living room--it contains two full-size grand pianos--of the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, Laura, and their baby daughter, Rachel, Siegel lists the cities where "Keyboard Conversations" is an ongoing, annual series--and where every season he gives one of the 70 different programs he has now put together: New York (Carnegie Hall), Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis. . . . What is the attraction of the lecture-recital?

"Well, first, it's not a lecture. I never prepare a speech, or read a script; I just talk about the music, about the circumstances surrounding its composition, the composer's life at that moment. That's why I have to do so much research, so I'll know more than I need to use."

Most of Siegel's "Conversations" contain two-thirds to three-quarters of the music he would normally play in a recital.

But some of them are one-piece programs, in which the pianist talks about the work, takes an intermission, then plays it. The "Conversation" about Beethoven's Opus 110, titled by Laura Siegel "Splendor From Silence," is such a program. So is "Liszt: Satan or Saint?" which focuses on Liszt's Sonata in B minor.

"What I've found interesting in these past few years," Siegel says, "is that my audiences for 'Keyboard Conversations' are made up not only of inexperienced or new music lovers, though some of them attend. The audiences include lifetime concertgoers, even professional musicians, who want to know even more about the composers and the works they've already been familiar with a long time."

The final program of this sixth season in intimate (515-seat) Smothers Theatre at Pepperdine is "Virtuoso Variations," which includes Schumann's "Symphonic" Etudes (March 31).

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