Jeffrey Biegel has always loved George Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue.”
The pianist-composer remembers it always being played in his parents’ Plainview home. “It was my father’s favorite piece,” Biegel said. “He loved it. . . . I think it took until the ’90s before my father said, ‘I think you finally got it.’ ”
Shortly after that, Biegel got the idea for what would become his new album “Manhattan Intermezzo” (Naxos), which was released last week.THE LATEST FROM OUR CRITICGlenn GamboaLOOK AHEADBest TV, music, theater coming in 2016Photos25 best albums of 2015
Biegel wanted to record his version of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which is different from most interpretations. “I added measures from the Gershwin manuscripts,” he said. “It makes more sense to me that way. It’s only about a minute’s worth of music, but it’s all about putting the connective tissue back into it.”
Because of that, he performs it differently from other artists. “I didn’t agree with swinging the rhythm into syncopated triplets,” Biegel said. “I see it with a more gentle bend, not as a swing piece. . . . I felt it was more a culmination of what was happening at the time.”
After selecting “Rhapsody in Blue” as the anchor of his new project, Biegel set out to find other pieces that would match its feel. He had fallen for a piano concerto by Keith Emerson — yes, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame — and had been performing it with Duke Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’,” which paired nicely, but there was still a missing link and that came by accident.
“I was at a birthday party for [producer-composer] David Foster,” Biegel recalled. “[Andrea] Bocelli was there. Neil [Sedaka] was there. People were singing and David said to me, ‘Now, you’re going to play.’ ”
He performed a Chopin polonaise and was later approached by Sedaka, who had just finished a concerto called “Manhattan Intermezzo” and wanted him to hear it.
“It was a look back at what New York meant to him,” Biegel said. “It captured the dances and culture of New York City, with a Russian flavor to it. . . . It was neo-romantic and lush. I loved it.”
Biegel asked Sedaka’s permission to “add some bells and whistles to the piano part,” which Sedaka granted after hearing what he had done. Soon, the piece received its world premiere with Orchestra Kentucky. And Biegel had found the final piece for his “Rhapsody in Blue” project, recording it all with the Brown University Orchestra and conductor Paul Phillips.
Biegel hopes to repeat his success with Sedaka’s piece this year, when he begins working with Bayville’s Jimmy Webb, the singer-songwriter best known for songs like “Wichita Lineman,” who is composing his first concerto. He hopes to perform the piece on Long Island in November.
“I’m looking forward to doing more things outside the box,” Biegel said. “It’s hard to get new music out there, but I’m always looking ahead for new projects.”