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Pianist Darren Creech 'queers the classical stage' to honour Orlando shooting victims

Robert Rowat

"My response has come in waves of emotion," confides queer classical pianist Darren Creech via email, reacting to the recent mass shooting at Pulse night club in Orlando, Fla. "Many queer individuals live under the daily fear of violence ... but it’s a sobering and fear-inducing event when something happens on this scale in North America."

Creech recently completed his master's in piano performance at the University of Montreal and was a two-time finalist in CBC Music's Piano Hero contest. This week, he's part of the lineup at Nuit Rose, the annual festival of queer-focused art and performance that takes place June 25 as part of Toronto Pride.

In the Orlando shooting aftermath, he realized his performance would take on an added dimension.

"I had already selected the repertoire before the shooting, and titled the concert Resilience, but as I was processing and reflecting on the situation, I was struck by how my program speaks directly to what unfolded in Orlando, and the strength and resilience that queer communities have always embodied. It seemed a necessary and timely response to my community’s grief to dedicate the performance to the victims and their communities."

Steinway Piano Galleries of Toronto has come forward to sponsor Creech's performance and provide a grand piano, since the venue (The 519 on Church Street) did not have a suitable instrument.

Upheaval, foreboding, recovery

"My performance opens with The Currents by American composer Sarah Kirkland Snider," explains Creech. "She based the work on a line from poet Nathaniel Bellows’ cycle of poems, Unremembered, that is 'But like the hidden current/ somewhere undersea/ you caused the most upheaval on the other side of me.' This sentiment seems to be a poignant way to open the concert."

His concert continues with the Piano Sonata by Leoš Janáček. "Written in memoriam of a protester killed in the streets, it takes the listener through two movements, Foreboding and Death. This musical representation of the emotional experience of death in the streets is ... moving and unsettling, and is the emotional crux of the concert."

That's followed by Alexander Scriabin’s "Black Mass” Sonata, which Creech says represents the devastation following an event such as the Orlando shooting. Next, Prokofiev’s Sarcasms "explores the use of sardonic wit and humour to recover from such a traumatic and terrible experience."

"And finally," says Creech, "Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s joyful set of dances, Suite de danzas criollas, closes the evening with nostalgia and joy, as we all emerge 'Resilient.' I was glad to finish with a Latino composer, given that it was primarily the Latinx community that was directly affected by this tragedy."

'Politicizing the space'

Creech's Nuit Rose concert shows his belief in a new potential for the classical concert stage. "The established concert format has unwritten prescribed rules as to what is acceptable to wear and do onstage," he observes. "I see it as a rather conservative approach, and would like to see greater diversity and meaning in how we communicate with the audience based on how we present onstage.

"This is why I cover my hair in glitter, and carefully pair what I wear with the narrative arc of a specific performance. Presentation is one example of re-thinking the concert experience, but I’m also interested in politicizing the space and creating a narrative arc. I want to clearly lead the audience through a journey, and am not afraid of contextualizing works in their own history, re-contextualizing them in today’s and lending emotional and political meaning in the way they’re presented."

His message to other young LGBT classical musicians? "Don’t give up on your dreams of bringing what you have to say to the stage. I want to see it, and many others do as well! Though the institutions and gatekeepers of classical music may not always be supportive, find communities of people who are, and be inspired by their support. Feel free to reach out and say hi to me — I’m always looking to connect with others who want to politicize and queer the classical stage."

Creech presents Resilience on Saturday, June 25, at 8:30 p.m. at the 519 (519 Church St.) in Toronto. For more information, consult the Nuit Rose website.

Darren Creech completed his master's in piano performance at the University of Montreal in 2016.