by Mike Telin
Last week, pianist Craig Terry shared Akron’s Thomas Hall stage with opera stars Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens for a Tuesday Musical concert — it was fantastic. On Wednesday, February 27 at 7:30 pm, the pianist will return to Northeast Ohio for a performance on the Oberlin Artist Recital Series, where he will share the Finney Chapel stage with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
The evening, titled “Songplay,” is based on DiDonato’s recently released album of the same name, with arrangements by Terry. It features songs from the early Baroque to American Classics, and from pure classical to improvised jazz. Tickets are available online.
“This tour has six stops, and the one with Larry and Eric has eight,” Terry said during a recent telephone conversation. “On Sunday I perform with Larry and Eric in Seattle, and on Monday the Joyce tour starts in the same theater. I’ve never played consecutive dates in the same space with different artists before, but this is a really fun time for me.”
Terry, who serves as Music Director of the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, regularly performs with the world’s leading singers and instrumentalists. His 2018-19 season schedule includes more than 30 concerts in North America, Europe, and Australia.
The pianist said the impetus for “Songplay” can be traced back to the first concert that he and DiDonato performed together. “We were talking about encore possibilities, and I always thought it would be fun if we turned some early music on its side and played it with modern changes, because it was improvised at its beginning,” Terry said. “We ended up doing Caro mio ben, and it got a huge reaction from the audience.”
The following year the duo toured South America, Spain, and Portugal and their program included a set of jazzed-up classical titles. “The response was so overwhelming that we thought it could be the makings for a project. And now, two years later it’s out.” The album also features jazz standards such as Lullaby of Birdland, Will He Like Me, The Masquerade is Over, Spring is Here, and She Loves Me. The album was released on February 1 on the Warner Classics label.
As on the album, during Wednesday’s concert, DiDonato and Terry are joined by Chuck Israels, double bass, Jimmy Madison, drums, Lautaro Greco, bandoneon, and Charlie Porter, trumpet. “These musicians are all titans of their field,” Terry said. “When we made the recording it was fun, because Joyce and I come from our side of the business, and they all come at it from a different way, apart from Charlie Porter, who is a virtuoso in classical and jazz. We had to figure out what our common voice was, which took some time, but they’re all a total joy, and I’ve learned so much from them.”
Terry said that he likes the album because the music is accessible to everyone, but finding the right pieces took some time. “We spent many hours going through repertoire trying to decide what would be the best in terms of style. We also wanted to make sure the arrangements worked with the words and told the story. We thought it would be fun to see how far we could push the boundaries while staying true to the text.”
Terry and DiDonato first worked together at Lyric Opera Chicago when the mezzo-soprano was singing Barber of Seville, and the pianist said they became instant friends. “I’ve always admired her work — she has tremendous energy and work ethic. When she gets in front of an audience, she has this way of telling stories and enchanting the audience that is very special.”
It was clear during last week’s Tuesday Musical concert that Terry and his colleagues were enjoying themselves. “I think that’s the name of the game, and the lucky thing for me is that I get to go out and make music with people that I love, and who are friends of mine. It’s great to walk onstage and share that, because in a way, that creates a different kind of trust. You trust each other to put your best stuff out there and you never know where the adventure will go. As with Larry and Eric, with Joyce, no concert is like the previous one. That for me is the fun — we start the journey and see where it takes us.”
Terry’s career as a collaborative pianist was preordained — he started playing for singers when he was eight years old, accompanying the school choir and individuals in Tullahoma, Tennessee. “There were these two incredible African American women who were one and three years older than me, and every time they sang, people would scream and yell. So it never occurred to me that people could sing in public and the audience wouldn’t go crazy.”
While earning his bachelor’s in Music Education from Tennessee Technological University, he began to play for instrumentalists as well and soon found his love for the collaborative nature of chamber music. “That was always where my best music-making showed itself,” he said, “but I didn’t realize that down the line there would be a career in that.”
Terry’s road to opera began while he was a master’s student at the Manhattan School of Music and found himself in the studio of famed collaborative pianist Warren Jones. “To be honest, I didn’t do the research, and I didn’t understand that he had worked at the Metropolitan Opera playing for all of the iconic singers of that time — and still does. But all of a sudden I was playing for singers all the time, and that’s how it started.”
It was during that same period that Terry experienced live opera for the first time. “I had gotten my hair cut across the street from the MET, and these two patrons had tickets to the dress rehearsal of Manon. They said, ‘Hey kid, do you want to go to the opera?’ Of course I said yes, and so I saw Renée Fleming singing the title role.”
Although he didn’t start arranging until later in life, Terry said that he was never far afield from trying to make everything he played have his own voice. “My dad’s family are all bluegrass pickers and players, and playing by ear is how I started. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play the piano in some fashion — obviously, it wasn’t complicated when I was five or six.”
Among others, his high school piano teacher has had a lasting impact on his approach to music. “Her brother played the piano at a hotel in New York for 35 years, and it was important to her that all of our classical music sounded like it was improvised — like it was the first time you were ever doing it. We improvised in our lessons every week, and I’m so grateful to her for that, because from an early age it taught me to think outside the box.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com February 19, 2019.
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