Saturday, September 3, 2011

"Sedaka's Back" into Classical Music

If you hear "laughter in the rain, walking hand-in-hand," with the one you love it is probably residue from the winter of 1974 when Neil Sedaka's impossibly catchy tune was all over the radio. The song was recorded on an album marking his return to the world of pop music called "Sedaka's Back."

But in 2009 Sedaka really went back...all the way back...to his roots, which were in classical music. That year, Sedaka began writing an extended work for piano and orchestra called "Manhattan Intermezzo," which he played with the Cincinnati and St. Louis Pops earlier this year.

Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Sedaka began playing piano in second grade and by age eight had successfully entered Juilliard Prep. He studied with Edgar Roberts at the Julliard Precollege and then became a student of Adele Marcus when he entered the upper division.

"This guy is a legend," said pianist Jeffrey Biegel, "he comes from the classics, and the GUY was GOOD!" According to Biegel, Marcus related stories about Arthur Rubinstein having heard Sedaka play the Chopin G minor Ballade and reported that Sedaka was one of the most talented high-school pianists in New York City at that time.

Biegel also studied with Adele Marcus, and has reworked the figuration of the Sedaka Intermezzo. Biegel will present this newly adapted version of the work on September 12 with Orchestra Kentucky in Bowling Green, conducted by Jeffrey Reed.

"In addition to composing a piece," wrote Sedaka in his program notes, "it takes a great artist's interpretation to bring it to musical fruition." Sedaka believes that Biegel's adaptation is an "enhancement" that shows a deep understanding of the work and of their shared musical roots. I have seen both the original score and the adaptation by Biegel and agree that there is a significant improvement in the modified version.

The work is not a piano concerto, and Sedaka is aware of the distinctions involved (it is, after all, called an Intermezzo). The music is cast in eleven distinct sections with the last two being a modified reprise of the first two in reverse order. The eighteen minute work might be best compared to a walk through nine different blocks of a Manhattan neighborhood that finally loop around to get home again. The individual sections are a medley of diverse styles, and while there is some development of keys and musical ideas, the charm of the work is in the amalgam of musical personalities and influences reflected in this musical tour.

One obstructive aspect of the original work is that at the end of each "block" we often need to wait for the light to change in order to continue walking: the seams show, and transitions between sections are often strongly stated which makes the music overly segmented. Biegel's adaptation has given us crossing guards and right-of-way. The flow through sections is significantly improved. Biegel's new figuration also greatly enhances the fluidity of the music, and helps stretch the register in which melodic presentation occurs.

But the most exciting part of the collaboration between Biegel and Sedaka is the fact that it took place at all. Biegel, unlike many classical musicians, seeks innovative situations, be they technological or interpersonal. He was able to recognize potential in a work that others might have dismissed as "pops," and created an elaborate adaptation that does not crush the appeal of the original.

Sedaka seemed open and supportive of this collaboration. It is a significant challenge in itself for successful musicians in one medium to collaborate and take advice, and it has often proved a stumbling block for popular musicians who seek to enter, or re-enter, the world of classical music.

I like the idea that Sedaka was welcomed "back" into classical music, and hope he continues to write music for us.

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