There was a moment of exquisite beauty in Portland Gay Men's Chorus' pride weekend performance last Saturday at the Schnitz [see preview, June 13
], and it didn't come accompanied by bombastic percussion or full-throated choral singing 120 male voices strong.
It was a simple hum, soft and wistful, trailing off from composer Lou Harrison's setting of Walt Whitman's ardent “When I Heard at the Close of Day,” a fitting close to Harrison's affecting “Three Songs” for chamber chorus from 1985, a work written expressly for this group (and conducted with obvious feeling by PGMC associate conductor Mary McCarty).
An extraordinary moment, it harkened back to heady years for the Chorus, which in its 25-year history has commissioned important works from Lou Harrison (including his marvelous, little-heard opera, Young Caesar
), David York and others. But those times are past. The PGMC, like many gay choruses across the country, no longer commissions works from the top ranks of openly queer composers, many of whom have expressed frustration at the diminishing musical standards of gay choruses. And so while gay choruses continue with the worthy work of commissioning new music, they're getting that music from lesser composers.
“BraveSouls and Dreamers,” the ostensible centerpiece of PGMC's weekend program, is a perfect case in point. Commissioned by the PGMC by their new composer-in-residence, Robert Seeley, with words by Seeley's partner, Robert Espindola, the works aims high—to reveal the horrors of war, and to plead for peace by quoting (or near-quoting) a mixed-bag of philosophers, pacifists and poets, from Gandhi to the Dalai Lama and from Jimmy Carter to Confucius.
The problems begin with Espindola's clunky text, which is sometimes his own (“Tongues speak the words of freedom/ But will orphans ever grasp the reasons?”), sometimes “inspired by” the writings of those great thinkers (as when he mashes up Gandhi, Buddha, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama) and in one brief movement, thankfully, where he even deigns to allow these thinkers to—however briefly—speak their actual words, in the cantata's gushing ninth movement. In that movement, composer Seeley sets Mahatma Gandhi's imploring words, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow/ Learn as if you were to live forever” to a sweeping tune with a whiff of “We are the world,” building to a hand-wringing high. And just when the tune reaches its apex, what happens next? The chorus members add expressive sign-language choralography.
Seeley's music may have occasional strong affects—percussive explosions when the text speaks of “hearing the bombs exploding” or Bernstein-esque snappy rhythms—but it doesn't add up to any cumulative emotional impact, it lacks strong compositional profile (not to mention sound prosody) and would likely be twice as expressive if the composer used half as much perfumed harp and chimes.
Of the soloists from within and without the chorus, all head-miked like the cast of Rent
, Jennifer Gill sang vibrantly throughout, revealing a mezzo with color and character, if slightly underpowered at the top. Derek Becker, Brian Robertson and Steve Fulmer all acquitted themselves admirably, and sang from memory. The chorus and pick-up orchestra sang and played with energy and commitment, and PGMC Artistic Director Bob Mensel, a fervent believer in Seeley's music, brought that same commitment to the podium.
There were extra-musical elements, too, all well-choreographed if a little precious, including the terrible misuse of former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts as a “master of ceremonies” of sorts, reading from a canned script with which she sounded ill-at-ease. Thankfully, the program had other highlights, the best of which was an expressive “Danny Boy” setting by Desiree LaVertu. This found the chorus singing with a lovely warm glow, precise diction and, most importantly, from heart.
[photo above: composer Lou Harrison]