Heartland Men’s Chorus celebrates ‘Kansas City Christmas’

Derek Cowsert | Kansas City Star

gay mens chorus 8It’s not every night you’ll see a 3-year-old in a tux.

But, then, it’s not every night when that same 3-year-old, Emmaus Cates-Cattaneo, takes the Folly Theater stage as conductor of the Heartland Men’s Chorus holiday concert, as he will Saturday.

Nor, come to think about it, does one often get the opportunity to hear Mayor Sly James belt out a solo “I’ll be Home For Christmas.” That will come Sunday.

But back to the kid. Emmaus is the son of new artistic director Dustin Cates, who will be doing all the other conducting for the three performances this weekend.

Nepotism, one might contend, but it’s not, really, since Cates didn’t have anything to do with it. It was Raymond Cattaneo, Cates’ husband, who purchased the guest conductor prize at Dinner of Note, the chorus’s fundraising gala.

“I kept saying to Ray, ‘Why are you bidding on that? They pay me to conduct.’ He surprised me by giving it to our son, so we got him a little tuxedo with tails,” Cates explained, beaming.

These guest appearances promise to be two highlights of “A Kansas City Christmas,” put on by one of America’s largest gay men’s choruses.

Native son Cates wants the first show of his inaugural season to be a celebration.

“Pride in our community is at an all-time high. I wanted my first concert as artistic director to reflect the spirit, flavor and music of my hometown,” Cates said.

The holiday concert offers a mix of traditional Christmas carols and sacred music with humor sprinkled throughout.

“Kansas City Christmas” places local artists front and center. Many of the featured composers have Kansas City ties, including Lyndell Leatherman and Jacob Narverud, who both will premiere new commissions.

Guest singers include rising indie pop star Dustin Rapier and soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson, whom Kansas City arts supporters will recognize from her work with the Lyric Arts Trio, the Kansas City Chorale, the Kansas City Symphony and the Bach Aria Soloists.

The Park Hill South High School Drumline also will take the stage for a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”

As the fourth artistic director in the 29-year history of the chorus, Cates brings a local pedigree: bachelor’s degree in music education from the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance; master’s in school leadership from Baker University; then 11 years as chorus director at Raytown South, then Shawnee Mission South, and finally Olathe East High School.

In 2013, Cates was invited as guest conductor for a Heartland Men’s performance of “I Am Harvey Milk.” During those rehearsals, he decided to apply for the open full-time position, though it seemed a long shot.

“I thought, I’m a high school choral director. I don’t have the kind of experience with gay choruses some of the other candidates have,” he said.

The search committee saw things differently.

“There are some real similarities to teaching a class full of high school students to directing a chorus of 150 gay men,” Cates joked.

This concert is the culmination of hours of practice for the singing members of the chorus, as well as tons of work for the 40 non-singing members, the Heartlights.

“Our slogan is if you can’t carry a tune, perhaps you can carry a bucket. We do all the behind-the-scenes work, from the stage to the office,” said Rusty Moore, president of Heartland Men’s Chorus and leader of the Heartlights.

“Heartland Men’s Chorus is a very well-run organization. All the other choral organizations across the country look to us for guidance,” explained Moore. “This is kind of a refuge for a lot of people. We cater to a lot of different needs.”

The members rehearse at the Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral downtown. This is a time for not only singing, but socializing. At a recent practice, there was even a doctor administering flu shots.

“It is wonderful, having men that you can be comfortable with in your own skin. You don’t have to pretend or even hide who you are. It’s one pressure you don’t have to worry about,” said second-year bass Mario Alcantara, a physical therapist from St. Joseph who commutes every Tuesday for rehearsal.

Tenor Jimmy Blanch, worship leader at Broadway Church in Westport in his seventh year with the chorus, added, “The chorus to me is like a family.”

Founded in 1986, Heartland Men’s Chorus is a not-for-profit chorus of gay and gay-sensitive singers. The chorus performs jazz, Broadway, popular and classical music and often utilizes a documentary format of music, narration and multimedia to illustrate issues of social justice. In addition to concerts at the Folly, the chorus puts on dozens of community outreach performances annually.

The Friday and Saturday shows of “Kansas City Christmas” begin at 8 p.m. The Sunday show starts at 4 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to hmckc.org or call 816-931-3338.