Wigs and pumps. Sequins and showtunes. Red ribbons and tuxes. There is truly nothing as maddeningly old-school GAY (sorry, it had to be in caps, folks) as a gay men's chorus concert.
As the gay and lesbian choral movement limps toward its 30th anniversary, there are looming questions about the movement's mission and relevance, and serious concerns about its oftentimes questionable standards of musicianship. Do gay choruses serve a substantial musical mission? Why do their demographics skew so white and so old? Do we still need an institution like a gay chorus in Portland?
Robert Mensel, artistic director of our own Portland Gay Men's Chorus, leaps to his ensemble's defense. He says his chorus has "helped desensitize the world to the word 'gay,'" and that "for many men, joining or coming to a chorus concert helps them to come out." He also decries the campy antics of his gay choral colleagues across the country, saying, "I want choral music that is choral music."
To prove their now-serious intentions, Mensel has commissioned a straitlaced work from California composer Robert Seeley and Seeley's partner, the writer Robert Espindola, called Brave Souls and Dreamers. Hold your breath: It is not about AIDS or gay rights. No costumes or spangles. Looking for Babs and Liza this weekend? Look elsewhere (tip: try Darcelle's).
Brave Souls is, shockingly, about the ravages of war. "This time we wanted to step beyond the gay community and speak to something more universal," Seeley says. And so Brave Souls is a quasi-cantata based on the writings of Jesus, Gandhi and Mother Teresa, a new work "speaking to universal peace," according to Espindola. The poetry is raw, it is graphic, and it doesn't pull any punches. Seeley calls it "the most profound and rewarding piece we've ever done."
Mensel says that Brave Souls, which features the 120-plus voices of the chorus, a 25-piece orchestra and Portland mezzo-soprano Jennifer Gill as soloist, is on a parallel with Randall Thompson's tuneful Peaceable Kingdom or Benjamin Britten's shattering War Requiem. "You can tell Seeley's steeped in Brahms as well as Broadway," Mensel says. "Sure, some would say, 'Oh, there are popular influences—I just want to barf!' But Seeley's music is saying, 'Fuck the establishment! I am going to write my own way.'"
"This work will be a defining moment for the PGMC," Espindola says. But what will that definition be—serious music-making or more queer schmaltz?