Just hearing David Berry describe music is an ethereal experience. Hearing him actually play the piano? Even more so.
The newest addition to the Eastern Mennonite University music faculty will perform Saturday, March 24, in Martin Chapel at 7:30 p.m. The recital is free and open to the public, and a freewill offering will be taken to benefit the music scholarship fund.
Berry earned his doctorate from The Juilliard School in 2011, after graduating from the University of Rochester Eastman School of Music. A native of Syracuse, New York, and winner of international piano competitions, Berry has performed with the Hudson Symphony Orchestra and in Carnegie Hall, and was a featured soloist at the Juilliard School’s Focus Festival.
His recital selections reflect his musical repertoire. The back-to-back juxtaposition of two sonatas, he said, centuries and continents apart in their writing, demonstrates the versatility of the form: Mozart’s F major sonata has “extraordinary ideas, charm, elegance, playfulness, deep lyricism.” The second piece, George Walker’s Piano Sonata No. 2, is “very dark” and “filled with biting dissonance.”
Another, “Troubled Water” by Margaret Bonds, is themed on the spiritual “Wade in the Water” and blends what Berry calls “Rachmaninoff-style piano” with “jazzy harmonies” that reflect the composer’s “Harlem Renaissance sensibilities” and “immense understanding of pianistic color.”
Berry will also perform Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” a collection of 21 short pieces that picture a masked ball and is “full of youthful imagination.” In his program notes, Berry writes that the piece “incorporates a musical thread” that is a “word game” based on the German letters for musical notes in the piece, which represent the composer’s and other people’s names.
And then – “if the audience can stand it,” he said – he’ll offer “a fun little encore, something jazzy. We’ll see what happens.”
Two musical worlds
Growing up, Berry was simultaneously immersed in two different musical worlds.
His dad played blues guitar, and the two jammed as well as played together in church. Berry had the Baptist hymnal memorized by age 15, and would play the organ for their “little Southern Gospel quartet.”
During the same time, from age five until he went to college, he studied under classical piano teacher George Skafidas who, he said, was “obsessed with Beethoven.” That passion soon had him hooked – “I was infected,” he said. He listened over and over to a cassette tape with “The Story of Beethoven” on one side and the Emperor Concerto on the other, and would visit the library for biographies about composers.
But he was learning much more from Skafidas than just intellectual understanding of music and history.
“He was this big, passionate character and instilled in me that music is about expression, and that these composers wrote because they had to. It was something inside them that they had to express,” Berry said. “That stayed with me.”
Though the lessons were his parents’ idea initially, he said they never had to force him to practice. And because his mother homeschooled him from third grade all the way through high school, Berry had unique opportunities to expand his exposure to classical music, such as attending mid-day recitals at the local museum – and “early on,” he developed deep appreciation for not just Beethoven’s works but also those of Schubert, Chopin and other composers.
“My parents did a really good job” he said, of helping him and his two younger siblings “find what are our passions and being creative in how they put that into our education.” One sibling is now pursuing a doctorate in organic chemistry, and the other works in information technology.
Then, in college, he found yet another musical element.
“I fell in with the jazz majors,” he said. “I would play something Rachmaninoff or Beethoven, and they would play Duke Ellington or John Coltrane or whatever, and we would trade ideas for harmonies. I added that sound to my already bluesy Gospel thing I was doing.”
Shaped by teachers
Skafidas wasn’t the only teacher who shaped Berry’s approach to music – and now teaching.
From one professor he learned that music is “images and analogies and colors,” that for Mozart you need a “really light, crisp sound” as if it were “carbonated.” To get a rich, full sound, he told him, “imagine dropping a bag of Dominos sugar on the piano from four feet above.”
“Music is all about gestures and movements,” Berry said. “Sometimes a picture is more helpful than a didactic description to understand the essence of the kind of sound you want to make.”
Another modeled a “pure beauty in his touch,” Berry said. “It sounded like he was playing on top of butter.”
Yet another helped Berry see Beethoven’s late pieces as very probing, massive, large-scale and other-earthly, and described the end of one piece as “the apotheosis of A-flat major.”
Vivid terms such as these, Berry said, make a performer think, “Okay, I’m not just playing the end of a piece or hitting this chord. What is the inner essence of this sound, this world of music?”
Those teachers, he said, “thought beyond the page, thought beyond the syllabus, and captured my heart with how powerful, deep, moving, convicting and expressive music can be – and really affected me and informed my approach in teaching music,” he said.
For years Berry traveled as a performer, in part with Core Ensemble, which combines chamber music with theatrical shows based on historical figures.
Now teaching, along with his continued performing, is a completion of his interests.
“Those two things live together,” he said. “I’ve always had a love for academia, for history, and for the larger picture beyond just the notes on the page.”
When he found EMU online, several things stood out: the university’s emphasis on service, a department where he could pursue his wide range of musical interests rather than be restricted by specialization, and the cross-cultural study program.
The first time he visited campus, he felt a “warmth” that “drew me,” he remembers. “I was hoping it would work out, by the time I left.”
It did – and has proved the right family move, too. His wife Jennifer now teaches kindergarten in a Harrisonburg school, their son attends Eastern Mennonite Elementary School, and Berry’s parents, who had been thinking of retiring to Virginia from New York, seized the day and moved to live just 10 minutes from campus.