The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus
Seize the Day! - May 20, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
Every concert of the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus is fresh and innovative, and “Seize the Day” was no exception. Since recent SGMC concerts have been largely exuberant affairs, I was struck by the appearance of the stage as we in the audience took our seats. Behind the risers there was a screen, and on it was a colorless projection of a moon through the bare trees of a forest. It certainly set a subdued mood for the show.
Then, as I paged through the program, I noticed there were more than a dozen quotes for each “act” of the concert. The first set of quotes, against a violet background, seemed rather somber. The second set, against an orange background on the next page were more hopeful. Then I noticed the shadow image on both pages (and the cover) of human figures with fists raised overhead. Obviously, I needed to look closer at the program to see what was behind all this. I learned that the theme of the show would be “transformation.” And here’s how it would be developed:
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Now I was ready for anything, but maybe not how the show actually started. There was a humming behind me. Then I turned around to see 15 of the chorus members moving in single file between the orchestra and mezzanine seating of the darkened theater. They proceeded very slowly and all in step, as if they were monks going to their matins. The four or so measures of the song they were humming in unison were repeated over and over. It was all very somber. Then I noticed one of the quotations projected on the screen behind the risers: "There's none so blind as those who will not listen." As the procession of monks reached the stage, they were joined by others from backstage. They took their positions on the risers, and I noticed that all were blindfolded.
The light in the room went up somewhat, and I could see that Stephen Johnson was directing. (Apparently, everyone was able to see around the blindfolds.) Presently the unison singing broke into harmony but still with an ancient sound, that I later learned was inspired by Australian Aboriginal culture. Eventually, I realized we had been hearing the first selection on the program, "Past Life Melodies" by Sarah Hopkins. The piece evolved through changes in its melodic structure, but it remained somber and when it concluded, it got hesitant applause.
The next song signaled a sharp change in mood. SGMC's accompanist, Kay Hight, came out in a dazzling gown to sing "All By Myself" as a solo. She was backed by all the instruments in the band, and gave a professional-quality performance. Hight has a big voice, and earned mid-song applause for some of her extended high notes. She built to climax that was so full of energy that it got an especially enthusiastic response from the audience.
I should mention here that, not only was this show thoughtfully programmed, but it was highly produced. The audio engineer left nothing to chance. Mics were everywhere, and although I was sitting in the seventh row, everything I heard came through the speaker on the stage in front of me. For Hight and for subsequent soloists, I noticed the addition of a little reverb to their performance. Then there were the lighting effects. It appeared that the lighting for each number was carefully thought out, and there was extensive use of lights that projected into the audience and onto the ceiling. These were present in Hight's performance, giving it the feel of a rock concert.
The projection of quotations onto the screen behind the chorus continued throughout the show, and I think it's fair to say that they enhanced the emotional impact of each song. However, they were only displayed long enough to read, so it was occasionally convenient to be able to check them in the program (for those of us who had enough light to read).
But the screen wasn't only used for projecting quotations. The next song, Coldplay's "Fix You," featured the Boy Howdy ensemble out front. The projected quotations spoke of the emotional "wounds" people endure, and they were accompanied by images of people experiencing different kinds of inner pain. The song itself was gentle, and seemed to me to convey compassion, emphasized by the poses of the Boy Howdy members, who sang with arms on shoulders, touching hands, etc. There was a nice a cappella section toward the end, and the lyric "Lights will guide you home" completed the message of reassurance.
The next song, "Homeward Bound," this time with only keyboard accompaniment, had a gentle sound with beautiful harmonies. It gave the sense of the comfort inherent in the notion of "home," and I found it very touching.
Taylor Swift's "Mean" was the first song in the show that had a beat to it. In fact, it rocked. The full accompaniment included a banjo and tambourine. At one point the accompaniment dropped out and the chorus started clapping in time. They were quickly joined by the audience, as if they were ready for some really happy music.
"Never Ever" was a song that specifically highlighted the struggle of gay men. It is part of the Naked Man song cycle commissioned two decades ago by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Beginning slowly and gently and building to an intense ending, it was good, inspirational music that I described in my notes as "emotionally dense" and "harmonically rich."
"Dance on Your Grave" was another part of the Naked Man music. As it was being performed tonight, there were images on the screen behind the chorus of anti-gay protests. The song seemed to convey a message of resurgence, with a tinge of anger. And one of the quotations displayed while it was sung made reference to "constructive anger.”
The climax of the first act of this show was "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Setting the mood for the intense passion of this piece, the lights went all red, and columns of theatrical fog rose from either side of the stage. Indeed, it was performed with great precision, energy and focused concentration. I marveled that the singers had committed the music to memory, though I noticed a few discreetly reading words and/or music from their cell phones.
After the intermission, SGMC Board President Rob Sofio spoke to the audience, welcoming us and thanking the sponsors and a number of other individuals. Then he introduced Norman Lorenz, a recently rejoined founding member of the chorus 31 years ago. Lorenz recounted the history of the chorus and spoke in inspiring terms about its future. With that, the bright part of the show was underway.
Now dressed all in white, right down to their shoes, the chorus entered to the sound of a 6-foot rain stick and conga drum. With a video of a giant rising sun on the screen behind them and theatrical fog again rising in two columns on each side of the stage, the chorus performed “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. The music felt encouraging and empowering, and the quotation that appeared on the screen read: “If we are ever to enjoy life, now is the time, not tomorrow or next year…. Today should always be our most wonderful day.”
In the quiet after the applause died down, an audio recording began of an excerpt of 1977 speech by San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in which he spoke of hope for gays and other minorities. This led to the performance of “Give ‘em Hope.” Beginning with several excellent solos, it struck me as a thoughtful song, with a trace of sadness. I remember the lyric, “I will not forget them,” and I later learned the lyrics were based on the words of Harvey Milk. Then, with a change in the lighting, the song turned upbeat, the chorus clapped in time to the music, most of the audience joined in, and by the time it concluded, everyone was energized.
What happened next was a big surprise. Betty Yee, California State Controller, came out on the stage and introduced herself. She then read a lengthy (6-minute or so) prepared speech about worldwide discrimination against LGBT people. Her appearance underscored the serious message of this show, and set up “Be a Hero,” a solo and duet (not accurately credited in the program), accompanied by another quote from Harvey Milk: “A hero is not braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”
The next song, “Cheerleader” was more characteristic of recent performances by the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus: upbeat and with lots of “choralography,” mostly suggestive of cheerleader moves. It was a transition from mostly thought-provoking content to pure entertainment, and I think the audience was ready for it.
“Flashdance – What a Feeling” is such a familiar piece to nearly everyone that the words were printed in the program with an invitation to sing (and dance) along. Honoring the traditional excitement built into the piece, it began gently with synth, strings and bass accompaniment. When the music presently ramped up in excitement, the chorus really loosened up and the lighting went wild. I didn’t see any one dancing, but there was a lot of singing along. The woman sitting in front of me couldn’t sit still, and I bet that was true of many others in the audience.
The next number, “Don’t Stop Believin’” only built on the excitement. There was a lot of choralography on the risers, and when the singers weren’t doing preprogrammed moves, everyone was dancing in place. I bet everyone in the audience was at least smiling, as the show took on the energy of a rock concert.
“Seize the Day” ratcheted back the emotion a bit with an a cappella beginning and inspirational lyrics. Then with clouds on the screen behind them, the chorus pulled a gigantic white sheet over themselves, and for a minute or so the sheet pulsated like the pregnant queen in a termite colony, while the synthesizer played solo. Then the sheet was pulled back and all the chorus members had changed into different solid-color tee shirts.
The last selection, “Geronimo,” was again full of choralography. On the screen behind the performers were video clips of a sky diving adventure, and I have to believe the jumpers were members of the chorus. The music built to a climax and ended with each singer thrusting a fist into the air while a volley of streamers was shot out into the first several rows of the audience. Then, as happens at the end of every show of the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus, the audience went wild.
And as also happens at every one of these concerts, we got a celebratory encore, “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” ending with director Steven Johnson throwing tightly rolled t-shirts out into the audience to accentuate the frenzy that was already there.
Johnson is a talented, intense, and I’d venture to say visionary director of this chorus that has made rapid progress in the few years of his tenure. Another important part of the team is Kay Hight who, after her brilliant solo number, provided solid accompaniment on the synthesizer, with the support of the other 7 instrumentalists. What surprised me, though, was the credit in the program for Neil Treganza as Coordinating Director, “responsible for the look, feel and message of each production.” It’s rare for a chorus to have such a role, but with the increasing focus of a few choruses on delivering entertainment with high production values, it’s increasingly important to have the responsibility reside in a single individual besides the artistic director. Apparently, I’ve been viewing Treganza’s work for the past 3 years, and he deserves a lot of credit for a job well done.
This particular show was an especially artistic, thoughtful venture. I think there will be those who might wish it had been faster paced from the beginning or that it might have been less demanding in forcing the audience to consider the deeper meaning in each musical selection. I, for one, found it entertaining, emotionally engaging, and even educational on many levels. That made it a rich experience, and I bet that richness was appreciated by nearly all of those around me, whose cheers at the close of the show took quite some time to die down.