ST. JOSEPH — It’s hard to imagine a Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra season without at least one appearance by operatic baritone vocalist Jonathan Beyer.
He first performed with the SMSO in 2010, singing with Paul Mow and Brandon Cedel in a Casual Classics Series show, then portraying the male lead, Billy Bigelow, in the full-stage production of “Carousel.”
In 2015, he and Sarah Gartshore were guest vocalists as the SMSO presented Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” and returned to portray the role of Curly McLain in the SMSO summer production of “Oklahoma!” In 2016, he stepped into Prince Eric’s shoes in “The Little Mermaid,” and last year performed as a soloist during the SMSO’s “Ode to Joy” concert featuring Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125.
On Thursday, Beyer performs songs from the Great American Songbook at The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center as part of the SMSO’s Casual Classics series.
“Oh, I’m just filling my yearly quota,” Beyer says, laughing, when asked about his return.
The truth is, Beyer, who grew up in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, has had a connection to Southwest Michigan since long before his frequent collaborations with the SMSO.
“My family owned a home in Coloma for more than 20 years,” he says. “So growing up, all of my summers were spent there. So I love coming back.”
Beyer, who was a pianist before he turned his attention to his voice, will both play and sing popular songs and jazz standards from the 1920-50s, including musical theater numbers by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and others.
“The obvious joke about accompanying myself at the piano is that I get to read all the words and I don’t have to memorize anything,” Beyer says. “But the truth is I know these songs so well, and the audience will as well. There’s things from the Golden Era of musical theater, some Hollywood songs, famous torch songs and that type of thing, so for sure we get some George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, but there’s some cheeky stuff, too.”
One of those more cheeky tunes is satirist Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” off his 1959 album “An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer.” The lyrics refer to controlling pigeons with strychnine-treated corn, which is how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controlled the pigeon population in Boston at the time.
“I’ll be telling stories from the road and funny things that have happened on stage, too,” Beyer says. “It’s meant to be a fun, intimate evening, like everyone going into the family room around the piano at a family gathering.”
Playing the piano was Beyer’s first love. In fact, he was studying composition and piano at Boston Conservatory when, by chance, famed soprano and voice teacher Sheri Greenawald heard him singing through a practice room door. Greenawald told the young jazz pianist that his real future was in opera, and he took her advice.
Beyer, who holds degrees from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, was a national finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Competition, the Grand Prize winner at the 2011 George London Foundation, and the first place winner at the Marian Anderson Prize for Emerging Classical Artists, to name a few.
In addition to the SMSO, he has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Munich Philharmonic, Dallas Opera, Chicago Symphony, Boston Lyric Opera and Pittsburgh Symphony, among others.
This past season, Beyer performed as Ping in Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” with the Vancouver Opera; performed a series of concerts of Giuseppe Verdi’s work in Frankfort, Germany; and selections of Igor Stravinsky at Bard College in the Hudson Valley of New York.
Beyer is currently in Chautauqua, N.Y., where he is giving a series of concerts and master classes. In fact, he is flying in specifically for the concert.
“So, you’ve basically got me on loan for 24 hours,” he says, adding the rare opportunity to play the piano and sing makes it worth it.
“It kind of creates the ultimate self-expression to accompany yourself,” Beyer adds. “I have accompanied people and more often people have accompanied me. Although I have enjoyed the occasional piano duet, I don’t often get to play for myself. There’s something unique about that. You get a very different kind of experience. I have the artistic input from top to bottom, which is a lot of fun.”
He pauses then adds, “Of course now I suppose we can joke about my control issues.”
Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio