Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus Celebrates Three Fabulous Decades

The Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus turns 30 this year, but who’s counting? Most important, beneath the numbers—the thousands of practice hours, the hundreds of concerts, the tens of years—lies the human bedrock: those who sing and those who embrace their song.

Gregory Wallin, a 10-year chorus member, recalls, “I attended the very first Twin Cities Men’s Chorus [“gay” was introduced in 1991] in concert at Heritage Hall in the Downtown Minneapolis Public Library in the spring of 1981 with my friend, David. We were inspired enough to want to join, and mustered up the nerve to audition by going together. Larry Whitely was the director, and after my audition, he said he needed basses. I said that was fine, and I was a member.”

Now, the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus (TCGMC) celebrates its 30th anniversary with the April 1-2 Olé! Olé! Olé! Concert, together with Ballet Folklórico México Azteca and Mariachi Mi Tierra, groups dedicated to the performance and preservation of traditional Mexican folk dance.

TCGMC Artistic Director Stan Hill notes, “This concert is garnering relationships with Twin Cities communities we have never reached before. Expanding on the original show commissioned by the Seattle Men’s Chorus, we are offering repertoire that goes beyond the pop genres, affording a look at significant Latino composers such as Villa-Lobos, Agiuar, Favero, and Suchar.”

Hill, TCGMC’s fifth director, who has led the group for 11 years, will be retiring in July 2012.

As Hill shares, his hope is that the chorus will “continue to explore and address issues that are relevant to them and the community at large.”

TCGMC no doubt will continue to touch lives both on and off the stage, as it has in the past.

Wallin says, “Going onstage as an openly-gay chorus was always empowering. Our first out-of-town concert was April 1984 in Chicago, where we performed with the Windy City Gay Men’s Chorus [Together Again for the First Time].”

For Wallin, “The highlight of it all was the weeklong GALA [Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses] II celebration in July 1986. We hosted the international event with groups from Canada, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and others—some 2,000 singers.

“Individual choruses were featured each evening at Orchestra Hall, and for the finale, the combined choruses performed under the direction of Philip Brunelle with a stirring rendition of ‘A Testament to Freedom,’ with text from Thomas Jefferson—2,000 gay/lesbian voices singing, ‘The God who gave us life, gave us liberty, at the same time.’ At the end, the audience wouldn’t stop applauding and cheering, so Dr. Brunelle turned back to us, and mouthed, ‘Start again!’”

Many audience members have responded with more than applause, among them Alan Braun, a staunch friend and financial supporter of the chorus.

As Braun explains, “I came out in 1984, and a new friend suggested we go to the chorus concert. I was totally amazed that such a group existed, as well as by the talent and entertainment they provided. It opened a new world for me, and I quickly became a financial supporter of the chorus.”

Braun is quick to illustrate the important role of TCGMC outreach in building community: “Having commissioned “Through A Glass Darkly” [March 2008], I traveled with the chorus to all its performances, from Miami to Ashland, Wisconsin.”

Of the latter city, Braun relates, “At one point, I looked to my right, and saw a woman in her 40s in tears—it was obvious her life had been impacted by addiction, and it was emotionally hitting home. I looked to my left, and saw three 60-plus women who were literally dancing in their seats to the beat of the music. What a contrast!”

Hill stresses that a primary aim of the chorus is “to put it very simply, to defuse stereotypes.”

This process works both ways, as was demonstrated during TCGMC’s extensive Great Southern Sing-Out Tour (2006), including performances in Nashville, Tennessee, at the Grand Ole Opry; Birmingham, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Hill reports, “The men of the chorus felt that we could best live up to our Mission Statement of ‘Gay Men Building Community Through Music’ by [confronting] our own stereotypes and fears of the Deep South, by going there and singing.”

Closer to home, Hill describes a chorus performance in the Rotunda at the Mall of America. One family—Mom, Dad, and three children—listened intently to the entire 45-minute set. When Hill took questions from the audience, the mother politely inquired, “How is it that all the gay men in America are here in Minneapolis?” After his explanation that the local chorus was only one of 120 GALA choruses, the father mused, “Well, I didn’t know they could sing low, too.”

Outreach, groundbreaking, and celebration merged gloriously in May 31, 2009, at the wedding of Dean Genth and Gary Swenson in “The Music Man Square” in Mason City, Iowa.

These excerpts are drawn from the couple’s wedding program:

“Dean and Gary found themselves on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. As they walked along…they saw a sign that read: ‘Gay Men’s Chorus Concert, tonight in the chapel.’ That evening, Dean and Gary, feeling as if they were the only gay couple in all of the rural Midwest, timidly entered the chapel, and saw 100 members of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus….Hundreds of people came in, young, old, gay couples, straight couples, all smiling, welcoming, and happy. It was an epiphany….They weren’t alone. For the first time, they held hands in public.”

Genth and Swenson became chorus supporters. When the Iowa Supreme Court ruling of April 3, 2009, allowed same-sex marriage, the two invited the chorus to sing at their wedding. And sing it did, 40-strong, led by Hill.

The couple’s program continues, “The Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus ends every concert with their signature song, ‘Walk Hand In Hand.’ As Dean and Gary held hands with each other…the choir and audience sang together words that would forever change the hopes and dreams of two frightened men from Iowa.”

Hill remarks, “We felt it was very affirming to be able to do in Iowa what we could not do in Minnesota. We were able to defuse stereotypes, not only through good singing, but by offering relatively rural individuals their first look at the gay community in numbers they may not have encountered before.”

TCGMC offers a home to all, even to relative “newbies” like Ryan Mayer, who moved here with his boyfriend in 2010, but knew few people locally. Bars and the Internet weren’t the solution. Spotting the chorus website, Mayer sent a note to Hill.

Mayer recounts that he “got a prompt response with details about auditions. I rehearsed an audition song, and went, although I almost chickened out. Thanks to the friendly and nerve-calming guys at the audition, I managed to make it through the audition.

“Being a chorus member has allowed me to meet some great guys, and make some great friends I might have never met outside the chorus. We actually were discussing this [recently], and we all agreed that if it weren’t for the chorus’s diversity of ages and personalities, many of us might never have met.”

Dr. Jan Meyer, a 30-year friend of the chorus, remembers, “I think I read an obscure item in a newspaper about a new group called the Twin Cities Men’s Chorus. Because I love music, I went to hear them, and, of course, was immediately sold!

“I became a donor first, as soon as the group asked, and also a season subscriber soon thereafter. I don’t believe I’ve missed a year for making a donation since its second year of existence, even when I lived in Chicago and Nebraska.”

Looking to the future, Meyer concedes, “Dr. Stan Hill is going to be a hard act to follow,” but she is sure of one thing: “Sometime in the time frame of 10 to 30 years, I expect at least part of the chorus to sing two selections at my memorial service. I don’t have the date yet, but I have picked the songs. Of course, “Hand in Hand” is one. The second is “American Hymn,” performed back when the Livingston Theatre in St. Paul was [the chorus’s] performance home.”

As a sort of exchange,” Meyer reveals pointedly, “I have been generous to the chorus in my will.”

Olé! Olé! Olé!
Apr. 1-2
Ted Mann Concert Hall
Univ. of Minn.
2128 S. 4th St., Mpls.

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