"It was very touching to me," said Siegel, "especially in a city that doesn't lack for musical performances."
Friends of Keyboard Conversations was born that April night, when a group of admirers among those standing in line to buy Siegel's compact discs after the concert began to coalesce.
"The aura of depression was palpable," said Fredrica Mann, a local psychiatrist and the daughter of Fredric R. Mann, who built the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. "We were all strangers to one another and started talking and being friends with a common goal."
So Mann held private fund-raising concerts with Siegel in her Main Line home and ultimately attracted about 70 donors. Though the entire $60,000 needed to produce the concerts has not been raised, the goal is within reach. Ewers offered the organization reduced rent at the Perelman Theater and administrative support.
The reason for this devotion to Keyboard Conversations - which Siegel currently performs in roughly 25 cities a year, from Utica, N.Y., to London - is a no-brainer for regulars. Says Mann, "Siegel concerts . . . make you feel like we're living in the time of the composer."
Another admirer is Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Herb Light, who says he has learned much he never knew from Siegel's talks. Ewers cites the classical-music comfort level the pianist establishes with audiences: People don't need to be shy about what they don't know.
Strangers to the programs could well wonder whether they're Classical Piano 101, possibly because of a PBS video version of a Keyboard Conversation in which Siegel had to keep his musical examples down to two minutes apiece. His CDs are a different matter, easily equaling Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts in their ability to explain deep musical matters with elegant simplicity.
So it's a surprise to hear the 69-year-old Siegel say, "I'm not good with words, but I steal from people who are."
That can't be entirely true. At any given moment, he has eight to 10 programs ready to be go, all assembled from vigorous research that has turned the apartment he shares with his wife on New York's Upper West Side into a storage challenge.
"For every book that comes in, one has to go out," he says. "I love books. I have a friend who is getting everything on Kindle, but I'm an old-fashioned guy. And my books are seriously underlined."
Consciously or not, Siegel's talks start with things that are simple and familiar: If he's dealing with a particular genre or period of music, he'll start with the brand names and end with the composers many may never have heard of. When the subject is a particular composer, he'll start by talking about the tunes and end up somewhere in the piece's deepest tissues. (He's surprised to hear that observation - "I wasn't quite aware.")
Keyboard Conversations seem to have been his destiny even as he was growing up in Chicago, before he went off to study at Juilliard. "My high school friends tell me that even back then . . . I would never just sit and play for them, but I would talk as well," he says. "One of them still attends the Keyboard Conversations in Atlanta and said, 'You were doing this when I was 15 years old and it made me enjoy it all the more.' "
For years, Siegel enjoyed a thriving concerto career, collaborating with all the big conductors - Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit, James Levine, and Michael Tilson Thomas. But what began as a sideline 43 years ago has taken over his professional life, which is now exclusively devoted to his 90 Keyboard Conversations each season.
He misses the glamour of the old repertoire, which he revisits occasionally with his old friend, conductor Leonard Slatkin. "But to be honest with you, I feel that Keyboard Conversations are the most valuable work I can be doing at this time," he said. "We need to make more friends for classical music and make the experience more than just in one ear and out the other."
If there's a regret, it's that his programs don't include more modern music. "I feel guilty. When I was younger, I did play music of composers who are living in my time," he admits.
But Siegel also is who he is: "At this point in my life, I have the most to offer traditional repertoire."
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.