Neil Crory, a former classical music senior producer at CBC who worked with artists including Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Russell Braun and Michael Schade, died Thursday, Jan. 10, at the age of 68. He had been suffering from Parkinson's disease. The news was confirmed by Crory's friend and former CBC colleague, Howard Dyck.
Over a career at CBC that spanned the '80s to the '00s, Crory worked in many areas of classical music production, but it was as a producer of concert broadcasts and recording projects for CBC Records that he made the biggest impact.
He was responsible for programming the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Millennium Opera Gala with its roster of top-drawer Canadian vocal talent; he carefully curated and produced Soirée Française, an album of duets sung by tenor Schade and baritone Russell Braun that won a Juno Award in 1998; with soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian he developed a number of award-winning records, including Azulão, Cleopatra and Mozart: Arie e Duetti; and he had a special working relationship with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra with whom he produced Dardanus: Music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, winner of a Juno Award in 2005.
To list these few projects is to omit dozens of other collaborations with a who's who of Canadian talent.
"For many years, I was lucky enough to work closely with Neil Crory. He was a brilliant producer," reflects Mark Steinmetz, director of music at CBC. "Any concert or recording project he produced was marked with his own distinct stamp. Each detail was acutely fashioned, carefully tweaked and, finally, impeccable. Neil's love and knowledge of music was unsurpassed. His dedication to Canadian musicians was exceptional. His passion for radio and public broadcasting ran deep. His creativity was irrepressible and inspiring. In short, Neil Crory was an artist."
The music of Richard Strauss was particularly cherished by Crory — he would tell anyone who'd listen that Capriccio and Die Frau ohne Schatten were highly underrated — and a decades-long association with soprano Edith Wiens led to several fine recordings, most notably an all-Strauss collection:
Crory grew up in rural Alberta where a portable transister radio was his constant companion, connecting him with Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and sparking a curiosity that would follow him throughout his life.
Soft-spoken but with lively eyes, Crory would often surprise colleagues with accounts of weekend trips — to New York, San Francisco, even overseas — to attend opera performances. One had to listen carefully to catch his astute and often hilarious observations, spoken sotto voce from the corner of his mouth.
In a 2001 Toronto Life feature on Crory, Urjo Kareda wrote, "For Crory, a recording's purpose is to document artists 'when they are putting their best foot forward.'" His commitment to presenting musicians in the best possible light made Crory a beloved colleague. Since the news of his death, many have shared memories:
"Canada lost a genius last night, and I lost a dear friend," wrote tenor Schade in an emotional Facebook tribute. "Neil, when you called me just this Tuesday to say 'goodbye,' I thanked you for our friendship ... for the two Junos that stand on my piano — two of the many records we made — that were rewarded also internationally because of his ears, and his choice or repertoire, and his wide knowledge and love for incredible music!"
Tenor Heppner replied to Schade's post, saying, "Such a loss. Neil had such an amazing sense for music. He programmed two of my best discs — I'm forever grateful. R.I.P Neil. We will miss you."
Crory never compromised on quality, according to soprano Bayrakdarian. "Even if you didn’t know him, just by going through the recordings and discography that he’s helmed, you immediately see the characteristics of someone with very high standards," she wrote to CBC Music. "Neil was a light: the quiet and warm beam that guides others to be better versions of themselves. To say he’ll be terribly missed is an understatement. But he’s free now and wholly perfect, and that’s all that matters."
In a statement to CBC Music, baritone Brett Polegato wrote, "Neil Crory was one of the most beautiful human beings I had the pleasure to call my friend," adding on Facebook, "he was instrumental in launching my career and was like a ferocious Mama Bear whenever someone tried to hurt me. He was like family to me and I love him very much."
CBC Music's Tom Allen took to Twitter to honour his late friend:
RIP Neil Crory, wonderful CBC Music producer and architect of so much of this country's musical landscape. A quiet, wise, dedicated and very slightly mischievous soul with a deep well of understanding. Thank-you for giving us so much, Neil.— Tom Allen (@TomAllenStories) January 11, 2019
Baritone Peter McGillivray called Crory a "towering figure":
RIP Neil Crory. So sad to hear of his passing yesterday from Parkinson’s. An absolute genius and towering figure in Canadian music and broadcasting when he was at the CBC. He is missed greatly.— Peter McGillivray (@pmcgillivray) January 11, 2019
Crory is survived by his partner, Bruce Galbraith.
CBC Music's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera will pay tribute to Crory on Jan. 26, immediately following the broadcast of Nico Muhly's Marnie, live from the Metropolitan Opera.