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The Power of Song: San Fran’s Gay Men’s Chorus’ 36th Anniversary Season

by Louise Adams
Friday Oct 11, 2013

"The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus is the grandfather of LGBT choral music," said the group's artistic director and conductor Dr. Timothy Seelig. "This group started it all."

Founded in 1978, the high-energy SFGMC has performed for tens of thousands in its Bay Area home, as well as across the U.S. The 300-man volunteer ensemble will kick off the 36th anniversary season with the 8th annual "Crescendo" preview event on Oct. 13 at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, featuring a champagne brunch, auctions and a preview of their 2013-14 Illuminate season.

Their first concert will be the SFGMC's first time performing at the War Memorial Opera House, founded in 1932. "SHINE! Our Brightest Holiday Ever!" will be held on Dec. 6 and will showcase San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Marina Harris. The program will feature the Russian piece "Now the Powers of Heaven" by Count Aleksandr Sheremetev to show solidarity with the Russian LGBT community. Another fan favorite winter program, the "24th Annual Home for the Holidays," will be held at the Castro Theatre for three performances on Dec. 24.

In the spring, "LUSTER: An American Songbook" will focus on 20th century American popular and classical music, with special guest jazz cabaret great Ann Hampton Callaway at Davies Symphony Hall on Mar. 25 and 26, 2014. "LUSTER" will also showcase the world premiere of "Tyler's Suite," a collaboration by America's most celebrated composers including Stephen Schwartz, Jake Heggie, John Corigliano, Lance Horne, John Bucchino, Craig Carnelia, and Callaway. The seven-movement song cycle, featuring violinist Kevin Rogers, pays tribute to the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who was bullied for being gay and took his life in 2010. The evening is in honor of the Tyler Clementi Foundation.

The SFGMC will also perform for the first time at the Marines' Memorial Theatre on Saturday, May 3, 2014, in "GLITTER! Bring on the Men!" with music and dance from the Leading Men of the Lollipop Guild, Vocal Minority and the S.W.A.G. ensemble.


The Illuminate season will conclude with "DAZZLE! The Boys Do Broadway" on June 25, 26 and 27 at the Nourse Theatre. This program will feature Tony Award-winner Laura Benanti, who performed in the world premiere of the chorus’s "I Am Harvey Milk" on the eve of the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling in June 2013.

At that event, Dr. Seelig said, "Tonight, 300 chorus members will raise their voices in song, just as the SFGMC did 35 years ago when they performed for the first time at the candlelight vigil for Harvey Milk. No matter what, we will always keep singing."

Tom Burtch joined the chorus in 1985 after seeing a Kennedy Center concert during the SFGMC’s historic 1981 tour, and also notes the chorus’s "power of song to gain acceptance, to put a voice to our struggles and comfort the community in times of loss."

Texas native, Dr. Seelig, who became the SFGMC’s Artistic Director in 2011, said that "from the very beginning, the chorus’ repertoire has reflected the path of LBGT people, first growing out of the gay and lesbian band movement and pride parades, then responding to the HIV pandemic."

Burtch remembers rehearsals during the AIDS crisis, when colleagues would hear announcements about "which member was in what room at which hospital. If you didn’t visit within a day or two, you probably wouldn’t see them before they died."

On Christmas Eve 1990, the chorus also began singing at the Castro Theatre, "so that those disenfranchised from family and church would have a welcoming place to gather with their community," said Burtch, who is also the community curator of the newly-opened collection of SFGMC’s "activism through music" materials at the GLBT Historical Society Museum (www.glbthistory.org), recently called "one of the best LGBT history archives in the U.S." by the Huffington Post.

"In the last decade or so, LGBT choral music has turned to other social and equal rights issues," said Dr. Seelig. "This includes newer works like a Schwartz piece called ’Testimony,’ based on the ’It Gets Better’ project, and Andrew Lippa’s Harvey Milk oratorio, which was an incredible artistic experience that also helped me quickly incorporate into San Francisco culture."


The chorus is present for any significant community event, from rallies and meetings to picnics and fundraisers, and has sung at City Hall every time same-sex marriages were legalized. The group also predicted the demise of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" with a 2003 parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s "HMS Pinafore" called "USS Metaphor," which featured Captain Closeted, a Boston marriage, and Peanut Buttercup (DVD at www.sfgmc.org/cds/creating-harmony-30th-season-highlights-and-new-world-waking/).

Due to recent advances in equality, some might consider gay choruses passé now, but "when all the speeches are finished, it is the music that carries the message right to the heart of the listener," said Dr. Seelig. "It’s healing through music."

The SFGMC continues to produce "musical documents" and to "sing out" about ongoing LGBT issues such as teen suicide and bullying (the group performed at a Matthew Shepard tribute in Laramie, Wyoming, in 2012), plus the importance of music in schools.

"We went on multi-city outreach trips to bolster communities where Prop 8 supporters were active," said Burtch. "We keep reinventing ourselves to stay relevant." He also hopes that the archival exhibit partnership between the SFGMC and the GLBT Historical Society will bring the chorus to a larger audience.

"There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of this group to continue to be at the forefront of the movement in every way," said Dr. Seelig. "This chorus commissions much of the repertoire performed by LGBT choruses, such as the Milk project, and continues to offer depth and breadth in this community, a light in the Bay Area and beyond.

"The SFGMC began the entire LGBT choral movement, and I would not have had a 20-year stint conducting the Dallas Gay Men’s Chorus, as well as conducting their lesbian chorus and serving as the first Artistic Director in Residence for the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, without them."


Burtch is grateful to the chorus as well, which allowed him to perform at two of San Francisco’s premiere performing arts spaces, Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House. His best memory is taking the stage at the Second Gay and Lesbian Choral Festival in 1986. He recalled that the audience acknowledged the SFGMC for the creation of this significant musical movement by giving the group "a seven-minute standing ovation before we even sang our first note."

Dr. Seelig had only been on staff for about three weeks when "The Daily Show" called to see if he and the chorus could rebut The Advocate magazine’s naming of San Francisco as only the 11th "gayest city." A week later, a comedy crew filmed one of their patented satirical interviews with Dr. Seelig, ending with the SFGMC singing Avenue Q’s "If You Were Gay." Dr. Seelig was petrified, but "our competition was Minneapolis, so it really wasn’t too hard," he said. (Check out the video here)

Now Dr. Seelig has another celebrity dream: To sing with Cher. "Surely she will make one more final tour and will want to sing with us," he said. "We’re 300 creative, excited, fabulous gay men, and we’re waiting by the phone."

Single show tickets go on sale Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. For single, season, or "Crescendo" benefit tickets, plus CDs and DVDs, visit www.SFGMC.org or call 415-392-4400.


Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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