Darren Creech - Pianist


I am fascinated by Darren's work as a pianist. Classically trained and a great performer, but with an explicitly queer bent. He is the performer that I wish I had been able to see as a kid growing up - although we're pretty similar in age - because it would have opened my eyes to so many different ideas about classical music and identity. Who the performer can be and how exciting a concert should be for an audience member. I had a chance to chat with Darren in late July. Have a read through his bio and interview below!

An innovative artist, queer classical pianist Darren Creech “shows his belief in a new potential for the classical concert stage” (CBC Music), and his playing has been heralded as “remarkably fresh and enticing” (Musical Toronto) and “full of ease, very convincing” (Yannick Nézet- Séguin). “Carving a niche as the only queer classical pianist to fiercely highlight his identity on stage,” (National Sawdust Log) Creech was the Keynote Performer at McGill University’s Music Graduate Symposium and was awarded the Best Artist Prize at Toronto’s Nuit Rose.

His multidisciplinary approach to the classical stage subverts expectations and takes his diverse audiences on an emotional journey. His unique solo performances have been described as “both unexpected and unforgettable” (Throbbing Rose Collective) and “tour-de-forces, propelled by a powerful narrative” (Musical Toronto), as Darren designs the lighting, composes poetic interludes and styles his many wardrobe changes.

Darren connects communities and organizations through his work. His McGill Keynote Performance was video broadcast live on CBC Music, and Steinway Piano Gallery Toronto sponsored his award-winning performance at the queer art festival Nuit Rose. His partnership with the world’s first queer orchestra, Toronto’s Counterpoint Community Orchestra was called a “perfect fit” (Canadian Mennonite) in their Toronto première performance of Victor Davies’ celebrated “Mennonite Piano Concerto.”

An advocate of contemporary music, Darren frequently collaborates with innovative composers, having also premièred works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Wally Gunn and Norbert Palej, and was a guest artist at the Toronto Creative Music Lab. As the resident pianist for FAWN Chamber Creative, he actively participates in creating new work, including co-creating a Queer Techno Opera.

As a collaborative artist and performer, he has worked with visual artist Erwin Olaf, accompanying “Waiting,” a film installation with a live piano score at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, and has collaborated with both Cree-Mennonite cellist & composer Cris Derksen and Grammy Award-winning producer & steel guitarist Daniel Lanois.

In addition to his work as a performer, Darren is in demand as a panelist and workshop presenter
to all ages, regularly sharing how he has “carved himself a niche in the music world” (Laurier Alumni), in addition to centring identity in the creation of an artistic practice. Recent engagements include speaking at McGill University, Wilfrid Laurier University, Toronto Creative Music Lab, Canadian New Music Network, and Blyth Academy. He has also served as a jury member for the JUNO Awards.

Recent performance highlights include closing the Suoni per il Popolo festival alongside the
Queer Songbook Orchestra in Montreal, inaugurating The Music Gallery’s season at 918 Bathurst in a double-bill with NYC’s Tak Ensemble, and his performance in Burdock’s PIANO FEST. He also attended the prestigious Banff Centre for the Arts for a three-week residency to develop a brand-new solo show.

Having grown up in Senegal, West Africa, Darren draws on his cross-cultural background to
inform his unconventional approach to the stage. He holds a Master of Music in piano performance from Université de Montréal and an Honours Bachelor of Music from Wilfrid Laurier University. He currently lives in Toronto.


{Jacob} - For anyone who has followed your career, it’s clear that you don’t shy away from politicizing music or art. Can I read into that and assume that a narrative - a politicization - of your art is important to you?

{Darren} - Yeah. I think it has ended up being a really important part of what I do as an artist. But, I think I’ve always been interested in what it means to be an artist, and also an artist who is engaged in the world. I think a lot of classical instruction is very “ivory tower” and removed from a lot of realities. How the world works. So I think I am always interested in finding ways to make classical music relevant and I think politicizing it is an important way of doing that.

{Jacob} - So when you’re thinking of repertoire choices, who you work with, where you play - do you think of it through that lense? Or does it happen incidentally?

{Darren} - I think a bit of both. I mean, I always want to be aware of the choices I’m making. Any choice we make, or don’t make, is political. So thinking about the music I’m playing, the spaces I’m in, physical and financial accessibility. But then also exploring the themes, what I’m wearing, the things said from stage, and thinking about the kind of space that’s created when an audience walks in. Really trying to question and deconstruct the way a concert experience is built.

{Jacob} - Do you think that consciousness comes from being queer? From being other? Do you think that there is no way to separate the person you are from the experience you create? As in, from inception are your performances othered because you are?

{Darren} - I do think that all aspects of identity play into creating the artist. All the parts of who we are, our identities, affect how we move through the world. I don’t think it always relates to being othered. Because if you’re playing in a queer space, you’re really feeling that community and connection. So then the effect of being other can change based on the space and audience. And the way things are presented. But yes, it is a bit of a fallacy to pretend that who we are as performers is separate from who we are as people. The idea of the a-political performer - that you can just walk out and do whatever you want. Especially someone who is a white, able-bodied, conventionally attractive, male soloist. People understand that as the default. We need to move away from that.

{Jacob} - Clearly, you think about all aspects of a performance. From what you’re wearing, to how it’s perceived, the lighting, the text and poetry, the space you’re in. Can you tell me a bit about how that process looks for you and how you go about putting together a show?

{Darren} - It's interesting. I usually build a show, something I’m touring with for a while, and then tweak it each performance based on the audience, where I am, who it’s for. And I’ve done the same show, on the same tour, in vastly different places. A church noon-hour concert, then a university keynote, then part of a classical series in a city. But then a queer art festival - the full gambit of things. But I try to think a lot about the type of experience I’m building. How it all is perceived and created. A narrative arc. A theme I want to explore.

{Jacob} - I'm so curious about your audiences. If they’re 75 and have been going to the orchestra for 55 years - the Toronto Symphony, London Philharmonic, and so on - your shows are just not...that type of show! They’re maybe expecting something other than what you’re giving them. What has that person’s experience been like?

{Darren} - It’s generally been overwhelmingly positive. People really crave any kind of connection with a performer, and there are so many other art forms and genres that do that so well. When you see someone honestly speaking from stage, relating their own stories. It gives the audience something to relate to. And I try to be conversational as well as poetic. And so what I find interesting, is that some of the most genuinely positive feedback has come from people coming to shows at churches. Which is really touching and kind of surprising in a way. So I think people can see what you’re doing but it doesn’t have to obstruct what you’re doing. If the core of the narrative is something they can relate to, even if it’s from a different angle - like talking about queer resilience, loss and recovery - but everyone has dealt with that. Maybe not as a queer person, but the story can relate. Actually, the most push back I’ve had is from people in institutions and universities. And it hasn’t been massive, but it has almost always come from profs, or people really entrenched in that academia world of universities. But even then, especially as a student. It’s different now going into universities and giving talks or masterclasses, but whenever I’m in that student role, people seem to feel threatened. That’s really the only time where people have said “that’s really inappropriate, you can’t wear this on stage.”

{Jacob} - I have to laugh hearing you say all that. I have absolutely done shows where I was prepared to get push back. That I was presenting something that I thought would be a hard pill for the audience to swallow artistically, but I’ve not given them enough credit. That they were right there with me - on board. And I thought, oh how great, they’re expanding their artistic boundaries. But they weren’t expanding anything. They were there from the beginning, it was me that needed expanding.

{Darren} - I think audiences from every demographic and age group are experiencing media from so many places now. So even if they are a regular orchestra goer, they’re also going to the theatre, they watch tv and listen to the radio. I had a revelation a few years ago while going to a play in downtown Toronto. And Toronto is a big city. You expect the audience to be pretty open. Progressive. But it was a theatre piece about the AIDS crisis. Full frontal nudity. Very gay. You know. And the crowd was an orchestra crowd. And I said, Oh My God. These people also go to the orchestra and no one was phased. It was a very gay play, and everyone was super into it. We have so much fear around this one demographic and how we feel that they’re going to be so scandalized, but if they understand the message and respect the music making thats happening, that’s enough. They’re with you. And yes. There are not that many people performing who will program potentially scandalous shows, and the curation of classical music is traditionally so conservative, that programmers don’t take a risk because they’re afraid of their audience base. The audience is still made up of people who exist in this current world. If you move someone, you can do whatever you want onstage.

{Jacob} - So who are your influences as a performer?

{Darren} - I mean, not exclusively a queer influence, but I love the way that Beyoncé frames her work. The way that she uses multidisciplinary, different media forms and the way she builds shows with narrative and poetry. And the way she has fiercely established her own identity as a black woman in a political way. And then Cameron Carpenter - queer organist. Something he said to me once. He said, people will only go and see X number of shows a year. And everyone has a different number. You’re not competing with another pianist, but with Adele and Beyoncé. Sometimes we have this idea that we need to be a better pianist than whoever else is in your field, but actually no. The audience can go see literally anything else other than your show. So how do you create something that is compelling enough? Like, if I’m playing and Beyoncé is playing, who are you going to go see? I mean, go see Beyoncé of course, but we should be competing for the kinds of experiences that people pay a lot of money for. There is this idea that young people don’t spend money on concerts. That’s a lie. People spend hundreds of dollars because these shows take people on a journey, they’re huge extravaganzas, they build a personal connection to that performer. So if we need to be competing at that level, what does classical music need to do?

{Jacob} - So other than Cameron Carpenter - who also identifies as explicitly queer, did you have performers growing up that were influential LGBT heroes?

{Darren} - Not really, no. So whenever I’m on stage and I look out and see a visibly queer person, I think, Yes! You’re seeing yourself represented on stage. I didn’t have that growing up and I didn’t see it during my education. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of that.

{Jacob} - I think it can take decades to understand the power of our own visibility. What that can do for people many years down the line. Seeing someone do what you might want to do and be visibly representing a group. If I had seen people like you performing 20 years ago, wow, what that would have meant for my own understanding of gender and what a career could look like. My own identity. It would have been amazing.

{Darren} Me too!

{Jacob} - What then do you think is next? Who don’t we see on the classical stage?

{Darren} - Non-binary folks. Trans performers are almost unheard of in our world. There is still a huge gender parity gap in programming and in soloists. The problem is that learning music is often such an elitist form of creation. How do we begin to make it accessible for everyone? We need people who can bring their full selves, their classical training and their non-classical selves, and weave it all together. People like Jeremy Dutcher who take their classical training and bring it all together. But we need to be careful of organisations that just want to check off boxes. Yep, we got the Indigenous tenor covered. Look at us, we’re so progressive! But then they're right back to Mahler and Beethoven! And I am conscious that I am a white man, and that I’m taking up that performance space, so I really want to leverage the voice I have to help bring people out to the front. My hope then is that the classical world will become less gatekept. That the curators will see what can and should get on stage. Rather than just cherry-picking their diversity quota, because that usually ends up pretty disappointing.

Photo credit : Alkarim Jadavji

Photo credit : Alkarim Jadavji