In the Beginning…
A Brief History of Heartland Men’s Chorus
Paul Backer | HMC Chorus Member
Heartland Men’s Chorus provides excellence in performance while advancing men’s choral music, building community, and reaching out to diverse audiences.
Even though that mission statement was adopted in 1996, about 10 years after the founding of Heartland Men’s Chorus, those principles have guided the group since its inception in 1986. It was then that a small group of men had a dream of forming a choral group in Kansas City. After much discussion and planning, their efforts led to the formation of the Chorus, which had its debut concert on December 14 of that year.
From the first, the Chorus built a community. The first concert, featuring 30 men, was dedicated to the memory of their friend Brian McLothlin. Singers from the first concert who remain active with the Chorus include Keith Grahl, Stephen Johnson, Randy Hite, and Jim Burton.
Sadly, our Chorus community has also been touched by loss. It is with sadness, and fondness, that we remember more than 30 members of our Chorus family who have died over the years. Our Chorus has been especially touched by the death of Frank Woltkamp, a founding member of the Chorus who sang every concert from 1986 until his death in June 2008, an amazing streak of 65 concerts.
The Chorus community continues to evolve as we reach out to diverse audiences, changing hearts and changing lives.
Over the years, the Chorus has reached out by performing in a host of area venues, singing in churches, theaters, nightclubs, parks and union halls. The Chorus has sung for the opening gala of a traveling exhibit of the Smithsonian Institution and a national signature event of the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, A Journey Fourth.
In order to reach beyond the Greater Kansas City area, the Chorus has performed elsewhere in the two-state area including Columbia, Joplin, Springfield and Maryville in Missouri and in Baldwin City, Lawrence, Topeka, and Wichita in Kansas.
Outside the two-state area, the Chorus has sung with GALA choruses at their home sites of St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dallas and Portland. In 2002, an international tour took members to London, Paris and Hamburg, Germany, where they shared the stage with other GALA Choruses.
In addition, the Chorus has performed at six quadrennial festivals of GALA Choruses Inc. Festival experiences have allowed the Chorus to perform in Denver, CO; Tampa, FL; San Jose, CA; Montreal, Canada, and Miami, FL.
The Chorus has reached out through Martin Luther King Day observances, Harmony in a World of Difference events and AIDS awareness events. The Chorus joined with the Women’s Chorus of Dallas to present Sing for the Cure, a benefit that raised $12,000 for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
And in recent years, the Chorus has presented two family matinee concerts, featuring pieces based on works by internationally renowned children’s author Tomie De Paola. In 2003, the Chorus performed on the Folly Theater Children’s Series, presenting music to two sold-out houses of schoolchildren.
Through the production of CDs, the Chorus also reaches out to persons who have never attended a live performance. Since 1994, the Chorus has produced ten commercial CDs:
- A Song for Christmas (1994)
- With Love from the Heartland (1998)
- A Kansas City Legacy (2000)
- Voices from the Heart (2002)
- Two Flutes Playing (2002)
- Let Heaven and Nature Swing (2003)
- Heartland Pride (2004)
- A New December (2005)
- Quest Unending (2008)
- Freedom (2010)
In addition, the Chorus has produced two DVDs of extraordinary concert events: The Few, the Proud, featuring Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer as narrator, and All God’s Children, featuring the Rev. Dr. Mel White of Soulforce as narrator.
Dedicated to choral excellence, Heartland Men’s Chorus has been led by talented and enthusiastic directors through its history.
The first conductor of the Chorus was Father Ambrose Karels, followed by co-directors Rande Stewart and Stephen Johnson.
The late Gina Scaggs Epifano was the first paid director of the Chorus. Among GALA Chorus directors, she was one of the first women to conduct a men’s chorus.
She was followed by Reuben Reynolds III, who directed the Chorus from 1990 to 1998. In his tenure, the Chorus reached new heights, moving to the Folly Theater as a venue, and broadening its scope and reach.
It was under his leadership that in 1998 the Chorus received the GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Award for its outstanding achievements as an arts organization and for its highly visible presence in the Kansas City gay and lesbian community.
From 1998 to 2014, the Chorus was under the direction of artistic director Dr. Joseph P. Nadeau. Under his leadership, the Chorus continued to grow in musical ability and reputation. Dustin Cates assumed the role of artistic director beginning with the 2014-105 season.
Rick Fisher, who became executive director in 1997, helps keep the Chorus going — and growing. He is responsible for day-to-day operation, a task in which he is assisted by the fifth section, HeartLight, a group of volunteers that provides essential behind-the-scenes work and valuable support for the Chorus.
On the official level, the Board of Directors and its seven committees (Development, Finance, Human Resources, Board Development, Marketing, Membership Services, and GALA Fund-raising) make decisions for the long-range development of the Chorus.
Among the goals of the Chorus is to advance men’s choral music through the commissioning of new compositions and arrangements.
Since 2002 alone, the Chorus has commissioned three major works: Two Flutes Playing, by Kansas City composer Mark Hayes, a major work featuring orchestra and dance; and Country Angel Christmas, based on a children’s book by Tomie De Paola. In 2005, the Chorus joined with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to co-commission Life is a Cabaret, a concert tribute to the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.
In addition, the Chorus joined with other GALA Choruses in commissioning Oliver Button is a Sissy, a half-hour musical based on another book by De Paola, and I Am Harvey Milk, an oratorio by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa celebrating the life and legacy of the civil rights hero.
The Chorus also has commissioned several song arrangements, featuring the talents of Eric Lane Barnes, Mark Hayes, Scott Farthing, and Paul Siskind.
Looking back on the years since 1986, it is amazing how far the Chorus has come. Looking ahead, there are no limits to what the Chorus can do as it lives out its vision: Our Voices Enlighten, Inspire, Heal and Empower.