The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus
Milestones: Our Journey Continues - May 8, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
(A word of explanation: This is the longest review I've written. My object is always to help a reader feel what is was like to be present at a concert. And this event was so big, so complex, that I couldn't give you the feeling of being there without all the detail that follows.)
It takes lots of self-confidence, an army of planners, and a very special event to schedule a choral concert in Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium. It’s a gigantic venue. As configured for this evening, there were some 2,500 seats: two levels of fixed seats on 3 sides of the main floor, which had hundreds of folding chairs set up for the VIP seating. Then there was a circular stage between these seats and the main stage. Oh, did I mention the aerialist apparatus? Above the ornate proscenium arch of the stage, two sets of colorful aerialist silks were suspended from the building's 50-foot ceiling.
Looking over the program I could see that an extraordinarily complex show was to come. Though they didn't quite fill the venue, the crowd seemed charged with anticipation. This was clearly a celebration for the LGBTQ community (that last Q is for "questioning"), and of the couples that surrounded me, most were same-sex, though there were very many apparently straight couples, as well.
It's hard to characterize the “Milestones” show as a choral concert: it was more of an entertainment extravaganza. And the theme that kept recurring through the evening was that this was the 30th anniversary of the Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus.
(Click here to open the program in a new window and review the details of this spectacular.)
The proceedings began with an inspirational welcome by SGMC President, Russ Williamson, who spoke about the significance of the occasion, recognized the chorus's original members, thanked donor organizations for their support, and described the work of the evening's designated charity, Sierra Forever Families (http://sierraff.org). Then the evening's emcee, Rob Stewart (host of KVIE's "Rob on the Road"), spoke about the history of SGMC, emphasizing how it began as the Sacramento Men's Chorus and noting the courageous step of adding "Gay" that occurred in 2006.
The show itself began with a soloist decked out in a sequined jacket who started singing "Willkommen" from the second balcony. As the 5-piece band played a bridge, he came down to the circular stage and introduced the band. Then the curtain rose on the chorus dressed in dark suits, white shirts with open collars — and colorful boas. After completing "Willkommen" in 4-part harmony, they proceeded to "Rhythm of Life." Fortunately, the chorus was well miked for this cavernous space, and they produced an excellent choral sound for this rhythmic song. I've heard (and sung) it a lot before, but I've never heard it sung in double-time, as they did toward the end of the piece. It was one of many demonstrations of this group's virtuosity. Incidentally, this piece (and most of the rest of the evening's entertainment) was accompanied by the kinds of lighting so common at rock concerts: groups of spotlights moving together to light the stage, and other groups that wander through the audience. Here’s the first thought that came to me when these were introduced: "This ain't your grandma's choral concert."
The third piece in the program introduced one of the breakthrough elements of this show: the guest Sacramento Children's Chorus. For this song, 10 children came out dressed in dark pants and t-shirts of different colors, and they sang the first verse of "True Colors," producing the well-articulated, pleasing sound I had heard at their own concert five days before. The men joined them for the second verse as props descended from above the stage: fifteen 4-foot square frames, loosely woven with single-colored strapping. As the singers got into the piece, it really began to rock until quietly ended by the children and followed by prolonged applause from the audience.
Continuing the "rainbow" theme but in a very different mood, the chorus performed "Over the Rainbow." The delivery was almost tender and featured beautiful harmonies. To my taste, it couldn't have been more sensitively sung.
With that, the curtain went down on the chorus, and Artistic Director Steven Johnson spoke to the audience from the circular stage, commenting on the journey he has had in his short tenure with the group, and asking for a show of hands of those for whom it was their first time to see SGMC perform. (Judging from the hands that went up around me, I'd say there were hundreds of first-timers.)
Next was the first number that really amped up the energy level of the show. Johnson was joined by 2 other singers to perform, "A Little Respect," accompanied by flashing lights, loud back-up from the band, rhythmic clapping from the audience, and 3 dancers in bowler hats and sunglasses. As if that weren't enough, the aerialist silks were let down, and two performers began their routine.
In a way all that was just set-up for "The Big Gay Sing." The curtain opened on the chorus, now dressed in black warm-up suits (though one was wearing a dress). They launched into a long, 8-song set (see the program) during which the audience was urged to sing along. (Words were projected on a screen above the chorus.) From the start, it was a party atmosphere — high-energy, joyful, and uninhibited — and I'd say that the great majority of the audience really got into the spirit and had a good time with the music. That was especially easy because we had an array of excellent solo performers, each bringing new energy.
"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" featured the Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Softball League and opera singer and actress, Carrie Hennessey. I had seen her the previous Sunday as the Witch in the Sacramento Children's Chorus's performance of excerpts from Humperdinck's opera, Hansel and Gretel. On that occasion, she showed herself an irrepressible performer, from her outrageous costume to her screeching flight up and down the aisles of the church — along with excellent singing, of course. Tonight she showed a different persona — equally uninhibited — prancing around the stage like Mick Jagger and prompting the audience to clap to the beat. Wearing a loud, mismatched top and skirt, long stockings and tennies, she performed this rock number with such energy and style that the lady sitting next to me couldn't believe she was an opera singer. As if Hennessey's performance weren't enough to stir the audience to a fever pitch, the softball league members threw t-shirts into the crowd.
"I Will Survive" was delivered by guest performer, Raquela. It felt like a number from a Las Vegas show, and the audience ate it up, with many standing in applause when it ended. The next song, "Born This Way" had a similar delivery, but it also held a big surprise for me. Kay Hight has been an excellent accompanist for all the SGMC concerts I've heard over the past few years. Now here she was belting out a rock song from the circular stage, and backed up by the chorus on the main stage. I should mention that this song, like so many performed by the Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus, was full of "choralography" — choreography performed in place on risers. At one point Hight left, while the men continued to sing. Then she returned in a silver sequined miniskirt to finish the performance, backed up by members of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center. It was dazzling.
The energy didn't wane — if anything, it increased — with next number, a Village People medley. What made this unusual, though, was that it was preceded by the entry of a 5-person color guard bearing the American flag, the flag of the State of California, and two flags of the Sacramento Valley Veterans (I didn't catch the identity of the fifth flag). The medley completed, the color guard exited down the center aisle as the audience stood and applauded.
The last 3 parts of the Big Gay Sing kept the audience’s excitement at a high level. "Proud Mary" was performed by drag queen, Brian Rath with 2 dancers, and the intensity of the performance surely rivaled that of Tina Turner. Singers from St. John's Lutheran Church and soloist Sierra Ronning then performed "All About That Bass." I was OK with everything else in this concert, but to me, this off-color song was just offensive. Enough said. The final number of the "Big Gay Sing" was "We Are Family." This could have been a show-ending finale/celebration because everyone who had performed returned to join in the party atmosphere. It was hard to believe that the show was only half-over.
Act 2 began on a very different note from everything in Act 1. Soloist Melanie Huber began by singing from behind those of us sitting in the middle section of the auditorium and then proceeded down the center aisle. The program says the first number was "Another Milestone," but honestly I don't remember what she sang. What I do remember is that she was dressed like Julie Andrews' Maria von Trapp. When she reached the circular stage, she launched into a skit that was a parody of The Sound of Music. She was joined by child singers/actors and one man-child, announcing that they were going to compete in "Austria's Got Talent." One distinctive highlight in the ensuing songs of The Sound of Music medley was Huber's beautiful voice ("Edelweiss" was exquisite). The comic acting was pretty good, too, and soon the curtain rose on the chorus, dressed again in dark suits, now with bowties. I wasn't sure that this medley, sometimes performed at a faster tempo than usual, was really taken seriously, partly because for two of the selections, the chorus held their hands in front of them, in mock opera-singer style. Serious or not, the medley was one more demonstration of how well SGMC could perform as a chorus.
At this point in the show, we had a series of speakers. A representative from the GALA Choruses organization (www.galachoruses.org) complimented SGMC on its progress and presented a check. Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen reviewed the chorus’s history and presented a citation from the Sacramento Mayor and City Council. Finally Mac Clemmons, CEO of a high-tech company and a frequent spokesperson for (and alumnus of) the Sacramento Children’s Chorus, spoke about how “music brings people together.” He closed by introducing the children’s chorus to cheers of welcome from the audience. The program identified the group as Cantoris, but among the 32 children, I’m sure I recognized members of a couple of the SCC’s other 4 choruses.
The children began with a stirring a cappella rendition of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” that was well miked and echoed beautifully in the vast Memorial Auditorium. The song transitioned into “Amazing Grace,” and drew a very warm response from the audience as it concluded. Then the children loosened up and had fun with the next piece, “Play for Me a Simple Melody,” that included quite a bit of their own “choralography.” As they got further into their 5-song set, I was conscious of a pure sound and good articulation from these young voices. “I See Heavens Glories Shine” was a more challenging piece, but it was delivered with expressiveness, confidence and accuracy. In my notes I wrote, “They nailed those harmonies.” Their final selection, “Still I Rise,” showed that the kids (and their Director, Lynn Stevens) could rock, and their styling got the audience into the piece with rhythmic clapping. When they left the stage, it was to the accompaniment of extended applause and cheers from the audience.
The next song, “Let Me Fall,” saw Carrie Hennessey return to the stage accompanied by tenor, Jason Petit. Hennessey, this time in a long black dress, presented a completely different persona from her earlier appearance. The duet delivered a pleasing, gentle sound, but didn’t get much of the audience’s attention because one aerialist had returned and was climbing his silks and performing maneuvers that elicited occasional gasps from the audience. The strangest part of the performance was the repeated song lyric, “if I fall.” And the music ended with the phrase, “Just let me fall”!
Now began the most touching parts of the concert. One member spoke about his experience growing up gay, and a picture of his family was displayed on the screen overhead. Then as the chorus sang “If You Only Knew,” there was a long series of family photos (presumably the families of chorus members), with the face of the gay child subtlety highlighted. This moving presentation ended with words displayed in print that had been spoken earlier: “To live with pride / To love with hope / To grow old with dignity / To sing our own song.” Then with chorus members closing in to the center of the risers, their arms on each other, they next sang “Seasons of Love,” while above them were displayed the pictures of friends, presumably lost in the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, each accompanied by a yellow rose.
The last number on the program was “What a Wonderful World.” After a few more words of inspiration by emcee Rob Stewart, the chorus was joined by the Sacramento Children’s Chorus and the other performers in a heartfelt rendition of this sweet song. Then, interrupting the standing ovation that followed, Director Steven Johnson yelled “You wanna hear one more?” I didn’t hear any objection to that offer. So with people still on their feet and various performers crowded onto the circular stage, the chorus performed “Dancing Queen,” complete with choralography, of course — as all the guest performers left, dancing their way down the center aisle.
I didn’t think of this as a choral concert so much as an entertainment extravaganza. It was a masterpiece of showmanship that gave the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus a sense of having celebrated their 30th anniversary in a memorable way, and in particular, a way that brought them closer to the larger community of which they are ever more confidently a part.