Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Kid in the Candy Store.

Dr. Kathleen McGuire conducting "My Rising Up"
for the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.
She conducts with her entire body.

"I feel like a kid in a candy store."

This is what I said to celebrated choral conductor Vance George as we stood at the foot of the stage at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.
The 250-voice male chorus towered above us as they took over the entire wall of the performance space, including the several rows of seating set up for audience members who like sitting above and behind the orchestra (or are those the cheap seats?).

(Forgive the namedropping, I had the chilling thrill of doing this -- overlooking an orchestra -- once at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on my birthday one year, which also happens to be St. Francis of Assisi Day, though we Baptists were never knew who St. Francis of Assisi was. No one was supposed to be seated up in the choir loft, but we arrived late. We were also escorting Ruth Warrick, the movie and soap star of "All My Children." You can't not seat Phoebe Tyler!

So, Jim and I sat with Mrs. Citizen Kane up to the left overlooking The Paul Winter Ensemble who were set up in the pulpit area. When the massive wooden back doors of the Gothic Cathedral came open and the light flooded in from the outside and the elephant and camel came down the aisle in response to the actual whale sounds Paul Winter had incorporated into his piece, I cried like a baby.)
Anyway, the maestro, Dr. George, looked over at me with a knowing smile and said... something. God I wish I could remember what he said, but it felt like, "Go for it, kid. It's all yours." I know it wasn't that, but that's how I took it. And, for a brief moment, I could see the joy of it all in his face as if he were remembering his first time.

Gathering myself, though, I began to feel at home and started looking at and feeling the cavernous space, hearing the sound, observing the technical limitations (and advantages), etc. In considering the staging of his piece, I had had some ideas, but until I was really there, I couldn't know what was possible and what wasn't. I also learned that, as much as I love the orchestra, which joins the chorus, it's the sound of those voices that thrills me and sometimes makes me weep at nothing more than just the sonority.

I totally enjoyed this weekend, but I was also a bit nervous. After all, I was meeting people from a different world. Smart people. Educated people. Cultured people. Massively talented people. To be even allowed entrance humbled me.

But as overwhelming as it was, it's also a familiar world because I loved choir at Jacksonville Baptist College, where I got my Associate of Arts degree (which I lost long ago, probably languishing in some seedy hotel room). I also loved the man who ran the music department, Dr. Gerald Orr (who I used to call Mr. Door because of how saying his name made his last name sound like "door").

He was the first academic I ever met. I was kind of a self-taught church musician from way out in the booger woods. He was a brilliant pianist, arranger and conductor. The college only had a couple of hundred students, so he was a true gift. They've since named a building after him. And he liked me because I picked up stuff fast. By the end of my first year, I was writing arrangements for all the choral groups in the school, especially our male Gospel Quartet.

But when I left the Baptist world, I cut myself off completely from JBC and, also, sadly, a lot of family and friends who I was cordial with, but who I was also holding at arm's distance -- much easier to do pre-Internet. At the time, I didn't know what else to do. I was not really like them. And I knew they couldn't handle the truth of me because the only thing I knew from that world was that I was the worst possible form of human being. So ugly, so filty, so disgusting, that it couldn't even be talked about. So, in a kind of a big f*** you to them, I not only disappeared behind the curtain and vanished, but I erased those years and that life and those people and that institution from my mind.

Standing there in front of that beautiful chorus, so much came flooding back to me. It was almost overwhelming. I kept thinking how, in a different world, I would be welcomed back there as a celebrated alumnus.

But Baptists haven't changed their mind about homosexuality, you understand. Not even a remote micro-inch. I've written a few emails to them but the silence has been deafening, except for a few classmates who looked me up and totally support my work.

So, here I was again, entering yet another new world a new beginning. A church musician and singer who became a cover band road musician who wrote songs on his own time who stumbled into musical theater, hit the lights of (Off-) Broadway and has now made his way back home to the choral stage thanks to the ears of another great conductor and musician, Kathleen McGuire.

Friday night, at the concert, I remembered back to when I entered the world of musical theater with "The Last Session." It was a foreign world of people and conversations and references and people who finished college. I was the Junior High science student at a NASA cocktail party.

I would stand around these people as they referenced musicals, operas, symphonies and composers, smiling like I knew what the hell they were talking about, petrified that they were going to ask me a question.

I don't know protocol in this world. For instance, I kept calling it the SFGMC a "choir" (which is what we called ourselves at JBC). But I was quickly corrected that "choir" is for church groups. That the proper word is "chorus."

Ack! Exposed!

Still, no matter how overwhelming it might be to be standing among these giants, I feel absolutely confident about "Pantheon." The songs are completely finished. My lead sheets for Kathleen are finished. The concept is sound. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we did nothing but stand there and sing, it would be enough.

But, that's the beauty of a chorus. There is so much more one can do without having to spend a single penny or build a single set.

And I have a wall of men to play with.

How hot is that?
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