ONLY CONNECT

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I wrote this in my old blog in June 2009. But it still feels so relevant:

This year, NYCGMC has been out and about. Thanks to our new and wonderful Outreach team, we easily achieved our objective of singing in all 5 boroughs of the city. We have shared our own special brand of choral singing at small local Pride events and on big Parades. We have sung to black and latino audiences, graced St John the Divine Cathedral and even got through to Vegas on on America's Got Talent. But what is a Gay Chorus for in 2009, and what are the values on which we should program?

My insight is that above all our work has to connect with people. Of course, we do sing complex contrapuntal 4 and 8-part pieces and commission new works that are 'good in themselves'. That material challenges us and gives us a musical solidity and depth. We are one of the best male voice choirs in the city and increasingly across America. But it's not all about us. This year, money is tight so we decided to start local, to develop new audiences and to raise our profile across the city, using material largely taken from our singalong show 'Big Gay Sing' - out and out pop songs like 'Dancing Queen', 'New York' and 'Hey Mickey'.

The audience reaction has surpassed our expectations and numbers have vastly increased at our shows, large and small. We sold out 'Big Gay Sing' several weeks early, got a standing ovation at America's Got Talent and found ourselves asked to take part in all kinds of Pride and Marriage Equality events. One memorable dress rehearsal for 'Single Ladies' took place on the street outside the Hammerstein Center on 34th street and 8th. Within 5 minutes we were surrounded by a large group of African American teenage girls, whooping and clapping along. They would never have come to one of our main shows.

I was trained in 'proper' choral singing, but my heart is in jazz and popular music of all kinds - from blues and country, to soul and Motown, from musical theatre to jazz. I have devoted my professional life to it. I see its relevance, its musical sophistication and its power. Pop songs like these are iconic classics, that have been beamed across the world and resonate in millions of lives. They mean things to people, and people recognise them, so when we sing them, we stand a better chance of getting our message across. To see 200 gay men singing 'Single Ladies' takes a song people know and gives it a new 'Marriage Equality' twist. It becomes a musical double-entendre, doubly powerful.

As a working jazz musician for 15 years, I used to joke privately that I played songs like 'Dancing Queen' and "New York' so often that my fellow musician and I deserved danger money to maintain my psychological health. Again it's not all about me. Our programming must be based primarily on an acute sensitivity what will attract and entertain listeners, rather than what will entertain us. This makes sense in terms of our mission and also in comercial terms too. Once these listeners know us better, they may come to a full concert and be impressed by the richness and blend of our sound and our technical virtuosity. But the really important work we do is with newcomers to the group - gay and straight, black and white, old and young - those who have yet to be convinced, those outside their comfort zone.

So is our new mission 'Fighting homophobia through singing karaoke favorites fabulously'? Not the complete picture by any means, but in practice, quite a fertile place to start.

Especially in a recession, only connect (E.M Forster, Howard's End) ...

Charles BealeComment