The Sequoia Symphony Orchestra, which recently changed its name from the Tulare County Symphony after 57 years, kicks off its 2017-18 season with a familiar guest artist.
Pianist Jeffrey Biegel played with the Visalia-based orchestra in February, performing a piece by Claude Bolling.
Now the New York-based Biegel is returning on Saturday, Oct. 7, to play Grieg’s famed Piano Concerto in a Masterworks concert titled “Gods and Heroes.”
“It went so well, that I got a call for an immediate re-engagement,” Biegel says of his February gig.
Here are five things to know about Biegel and his Visalia performance:
He has a strong connection to Grieg and the composer’s home country of Norway. In 1988, Biegel was a winner of the Crown Princess Sonja International Piano Competition in Norway. Everyone in the competition was required to play Grieg Ballade in G minor as a nod to the composer’s nationality.
After his big win, Biegel traveled to Bergen, Norway, to visit Grieg’s home, which is maintained as a museum. Biegel asked to play Grieg’s beautiful Steinway piano, which is maintained in perfect condition in the main house. He sat down and started to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto.
“After about half a minute — and I don’t feel this way all the time — I felt like my hands were separated through my torso,” Biegel says. “I looked at the friend I was with and said, ‘This is strange, but I feel like someone else is playing with me.”
Crown Princess Sonja is now queen of Norway, by the way. Biegel got to catch up with her at the 25th anniversary of the piano competition by playing a concert for her at her summer palace.
Grieg only wrote one piano concerto, but it’s a doozy. Biegel loves it. You’ll probably recognize its crashing opening chords.
“It’s one of the grand Romantic piano concertos,” he says. “The music is very beautiful to me. It has a warm, woodsy, dark-colored hued to it. And when it’s bright, it’s very silver-bright.”
Biegel has wide-ranging musical tastes, from classical to pop. He’s perfectly at home in front of a symphony orchestra, of course, something for which his Juilliard training amply prepared him. But he’s also a fan of such artists ranging from William Bolcom to PDQ Bach. He recently performed the world premiere of the latest composition by Italian composer and pianist Giovanni Allevi, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, No. 1, with Orchestra Kentucky. (Allevi’s latest CD release, “Equilibrium,” will be available on iTunes Oct. 20.)
Another major upcoming project: He’s long had an affinity for the Charles Schulz comic strip “Peanuts.” He’s working with Grammy-award winning composer Dick Tunney to put together a new “Peanuts Concerto” for piano and orchestra, based on the original music by Vince Guaraldi.
“I like to give a new spin on music that people are familiar with,” he says. “Think of it as giving music a facelift for the concert hall.”
The pianist has an amazing early-childhood story to tell. Up till the age of 3, he could neither hear nor speak because of blockage in his ears. The only sounds he could recognize were electronic, interestingly enough.
“I could feel the vibration through this low-muffled sound that I heard through stereo speakers,” he says.
Surgery corrected the problem. The result was what you might call the “reverse Beethoven effect,” in which the vibrations came first and then the hearing, compared to Beethoven’s loss of hearing later in life, when he was left only with the vibrations.
His first years helped make him the musician he became, Biegel says. “In a sense, music was my very first language.”
He’s looking forward to coming back to Visalia and its newly renamed symphony.
“I think it’s a very fine orchestra,” he says. “They rehearsed well and performed well. And I love the town. It’s a very nice mini-cosmopolitan area.”
The program also includes a piece about the legendary lover in Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Shakespeare’s doomed lovers in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Bruce Kiesling conducts.
Sequoia Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, Visalia Fox Theatre, 308 W. Main St., Visalia. $22-$45, $10 students.
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