Unknown no longer

By Morgan Greenwood June 12, 2018

A newly commissioned oratorio and a smattering of familiar tunes filled Saturday’s concert from Kansas City’s own Heartland Men’s Chorus.

The Heartland Men’s Chorus has been around the block – in the good sense of the phrase. Performing in some capacity since 1986, it is safe to call them an institution. Their concert on Saturday was one of only three they present each year, and as such it holds a certain weight to it. And that weight was not shirked away from by any means. The Chorus performed a newly commissioned hour-long oratorio for vocal soloists, choir, and orchestra—and that was only the first half of the concert. Furthermore, the concert had high goals in its conception: “Today, we will honor lives lost, remember the sacrifice others made on our behalf, reflect on the challenges we experience today and celebrate the ties that bind us together as Americans.”

This was most readily seen in the oratorio We, The Unknown, composed by Timothy C. Takach with lyrics by Rob Hill and Pat Daneman. Hill himself sings in the Chorus and is former U.S. Army officer with military roots going back two generations (his paternal grandfather served in WWI). This fact is important context: We, The Unknown tells the story of how the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s unknown soldier was chosen to be interred there. As per the program notes, “…four unknowns were exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger… selected the unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets.” The oratorio explodes this simple act into the whole of the piece. Sgt. Younger approaches each of the caskets (represented by American flags shrouding the soldiers behind) and the soldiers one by one come out to tell their stories as the chorus accompanies and comments—sometimes as a symbolic military group, sometimes as a kind of Greek chorus. The Heartland Men’s Chorus was joined by members of the U.S. Army Soldier’s Chorus, who sang as well. The soldier’s stories were aimed to be diverse—the work was conceived as “what if the person selected was gay or African-American or someone else we might not otherwise expect?”

The oratorio was complimented by some extensive staging and choreography. There was a darkened screen that dropped and retracted at various times. This screen would separate the soloists from the choir and at various points was projected upon with imagery. A striking image was of a field of headstones, that, when projected upon the screen intermingled with the shrouded but still-visible choir and reminded us of the masses lost. The extensiveness of the production did get in the way occasionally, as when smoke machines meant to simulate explosives gave off their signature hiss instead and reminded us that we were watching a play. A heightened version of this occurred when, at the big finale, all four of the unknown soldiers were visible outside of their flag-caskets and the flags quickly descended at once, clearly meant to be a crushing moment. However, one flag caught on a soloist’s head, leaving the lower half of his torso and legs exposed. Perhaps an inadvertent metaphor for how nationalistic fervor leaves faceless bodies in its wake?

The soloists’ performances themselves, on the whole, were quite good. Christopher Puckett, who performed the role of Edward F. Younger, the man tasked with selecting the Unknown Soldier, was especially impassioned. David M. Sanchez, Unknown Soldier #2, who sang of the struggles of being a black man in the military at that time, had the fieriest section that erupted into applause at its end. Christopher Kurt, Unknown Soldier #3, mostly sang well of being separated from his love (another soldier) by death and circumstance, but the part unfortunately sometimes existed outside of his range. Unknown Soldier #4 was merely a boy who was resigned to stand there, as his mother (mezzo-soprano Aidan Soder) sang in his stead.

After the intermission, the concert lightened considerably. Different smaller chamber groups as well as the full choir sang numbers ranging from arrangements of songs like Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” or “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” However, the second half also had the single most affecting sequence on the entire concert—Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, a collection of seven pieces for men’s chorus. The only text used is the final spoken words of seven unarmed black men: Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Eric Garner. The piece was devastating, but this lies not with the written music or even its performance, but rather the unstated implications that it holds: that people and lives are always affected—and yes, ended—by the choices of individuals. The bullet was fired by a person, mines were laid by a person. Those four unknown men and those seven unarmed men all died as a result of societal forces larger than themselves in the sense that the situation was laid out by others’ collective actions beforehand. Compassion is needed. Sea change is needed.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
Indivisible: Resistance & Remembrance
Saturday, June 9th, 2018
The Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO 64105

Copyright © 2018 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

ABBA Cadabra

By Jordan Buchholtz March 27, 2018

Heartland Men’s Chorus’ pyrotechnic energy and aesthetically decorative production of “ABBA Cadabra” captivated and excited a full house at the Folly Theater on Sunday night.

The Heartland Men’s Chorus under the direction of Dustin S. Cates, with pianist Robert Lamar Sims, and a bassist and a drummer presented 17 popular songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA. This show was aurally stimulating with the Chorus’ vibrant and animated singing as well as visually engaging from special lighting effects, dancers on stage, outfit changes, small ensembles, and simple choreography.

This concert was split into two parts: In Act 1, the stage was full of rainbow colors from the background and the men’s outfits of all black with colorful ties. The color palate changed for Act 2, and the Chorus wore shades of purple, grey, and black.

Act 1 began with a continuous flow of songs: “Super Trouper,” “Waterloo,” “Take A Chance on Me,” “Money, Money, Money,” “The Winner Takes it All/Knowing Me Knowing You,” “On and On and On,” “I Have a Dream,” and “Does Your Mother Know.” The first number, “Super Trouper” featured an acrobatic ring dancer, adding in an interesting visual effect. Five dancers joined the Chorus on stage throughout the whole show in various outfits depending upon the song. The purpose of the dancers was a little unclear, except that they certainly drew attention away from the more basic choreography and moves of the Chorus. And then it became obvious that much of the Chorus wanted to do more moves and dance along to the music, but it is difficult to synchronize a large number of people on more complex motions. Thus the dancers!

The balance between the musicians and the Chorus was good overall, although there were times that the musicians slightly overpowered the Chorus and, therefore, words were not easily comprehensible. The arrangements had some interesting harmonies, so it would have been nice to hear more of that. Some highlights from Act 1 include the song “Money, Money, Money” which was sung by eight men who were dressed in costumes of common job uniforms such as a policeman, fireman, mechanic, construction worker, etc. Toward the end of the song they started stripping their clothes off, which naturally aroused and hyped up the audience. “I Have a Dream” began with a quartet of singers who started out a little pitchy, but slowly unified and steadied their harmonies as the song continued.

Act 2 began with a “flashy” version of “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” as the Chorus members held flashlights in their hands and synchronized movements of shining the lights out into the audience – great effect! The other songs included in this Act were: “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “Voulez Vous,” “The Way Old Friends Do,” “One of Us,” “Fernando,” “Thank You for the Music,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Dancing Queen.” One of the most musically impressive numbers was “The Way Old Friends Do” which started off with a trio of singers with an excellent blend of voices, and they were equally matched by the wonderful harmonies of the choir. Judging by the rest of the show, expectations were held high for the last two numbers, perhaps the most popular songs of ABBA “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen.” “Mamma Mia” lacked some artistic creativity, it was more plain and straightforward, but the presentation of “Dancing Queen” definitely included various special effects and made up for the previous song.

Of course a concert full of popular tunes entices people to sing along. The audience was invited to sing on numbers such as “Super Trouper,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Dancing Queen.”  Lyrics were projected on a screen that came down from the ceiling of the stage for these songs. And a fun creative activity the Chorus constructed during the show was what they called “ABBA Draga Queen.” Kansas City Drag Queen Melinda Ryder and her husband Kirk Nelson led this event where they took a straight man from the audience and transformed him into a drag queen backstage during the concert and revealed the makeover during the last number “Dancing Queen.” Throughout the show, MC Dudley Hogue along with Ryder came on stage to give the audience updates on the process of the makeover, and even showed some footage of Nelson putting makeup on the “drag-queen-to-be.” Hogue and Ryder were both amusing and entertaining with their comic verbal delivery and adorned demeanor. This event as a whole was a nice addition to the concert and gave the song “Dancing Queen” extra pizzazz  – along with the balloons that fell from the ceiling and the ostentatious singing from the Chorus as well as the audience.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
ABBA Cadabra
March 24-25, reviewed Sunday, March 25th
Stephen Metzler Hall at the Folly Theater
300 W 12th St, Kansas City, MO

Copyright © 2018 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.


By Sarah Young December 12, 2017

Heartland Men’s Chorus offered up one of its familiar zany and tender holiday programs in “Packages with Beaus” at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College on Sunday.

With guest performers Claybourne Elder and the UMKC Graduate String Quartet, as well as the chorus’s soloists and small group performers, Artistic Director Dustin Cates and Heartland Men’s Chorus rolled together a traditional as well as splendidly diverse collection of festive music and music that captured the spirit of the holidays.

Opening with an arrangement by James L. Stevens of “Nearer, My God to Thee,” with soloist Michael Schnetzer, the chorus signaled its intention to offer variation on the traditional holiday fare and followed it with the difficult and stunningly beautiful “Festival Gloria” by Craig Courtney, showing the depth of the men’s choral skills. Notable moments in the early part of the program celebrated Hanukah in “One Light” with soloist Max H. Brown, and a performance of “African Noel” with the smaller chamber ensemble performing the charming round. The emotional Jewel piece “Hands,” arranged by Cates for chorus with solo turn from Todd Gregory-Gibbs, was dramatic and emotional in its message of light and hope in times of darkness.

The guest performer at the Yardley Hall event was Broadway performer Claybourne Elder, whose singing shone with depth of feeling as well as humor. He offered a powerful performance of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a song that reflects more of the darker emotions often felt during the holiday season. During the second half of the evening’s performance, Elder returned with a ukulele and a rollicking “I’m Getting’ Nuttin’ for Christmas” and later a “Santa Baby” mock strip-tease.

The concert’s second half was thematically lighter, beginning with a comically choreographed “Sleigh Ride” and “I Want to Stare at My Phone with You (A Millennial Holiday Song).” Brandon Shelton’s turn as the long-suffering “Marge” from Human Resources in “A PC Christmas” and the Bob Chilcott arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (adapted by Tim Sarsany) drew lots of audience appreciation. The hilarious highlight, however, was “A Cowboy Kislev,” featuring the small chorus group “Burnt Ends” decked out for the Hanukah trail drive—complete with Menorah and yarmulkes under their cowboy hats.

Returning to the solemnity of the evening a wordless version of “Stille Nacht,” with the UMKC Graduate String Quartet, was dedicated its performance to members of HMC who have passed on.

The inclusivity of the holiday season theme was back with the final powerful number “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” with a solo by Christopher Kurt. The encore was a dramatic rendering of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” delivered as all of the performers left the stage by walking through the house.

This concert added variety and perspective to the usual holiday musical fare, giving its dedicated audience a chance to find the season’s spirit in new dimensions of song and experience. Heartland Men’s Chorus is a local gem, giving fine performances of thoughtful song choices and well-crafted singing that show their versatility as well as their love of performance.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
Packages with Beaus
Sunday, December 10, 2017
Yardley Hall, Carlsen Center, Johnson County Community College campus
12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, KS

Copyright © 2017 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

From the heart

By Mike Alley November 14, 2017

In this roiling era of discrimination and intolerance, the messages of acceptance and humanity in the Heartland Men’s Chorus’s fall concert was truly a welcome reminder of the truth of Maya Angelou’s words, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Let me say right at the top: From the Heart by Heartland Men’s Chorus was simply phenomenal.

I haven’t been to a HMC show in more years than I want to admit, but the experience I had on this evening made me deeply regret those missed opportunities. Fortunately for folks like myself, this performance, by virtue of being a “greatest hits” compilation of their most compassionate repertoire, does give a new (or lapsed) patron the chance to partially catch up on some of the energy and emotion that the Chorus has been sharing with Kansas City audiences since 1986.

And emotion was indeed the emphasis of the evening’s programming from artistic director/conductor Dustin Cates. In this roiling era of discrimination and intolerance we’re living in, the song selections’ messages of acceptance and humanity were truly a welcome reminder of the truth of Maya Angelou’s words, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Upon arrival at Church of the Resurrection, I was a little concerned at the distance the choir loft was from the audience, way up high against the wall, across a wide, wooden dais that appeared almost as large as a regulation basketball court; distance during the presentation of such emotional content as was on the bill for the evening isn’t the best way to assure the impression you want to make. That concern faded quickly as the lighting was adjusted to theatrical norms, and close-ups of the choir began to appear on each end of the stunning, hundred-foot long, curved video screen just above the last row of the loft.

There were several times I was brought to tears as the evening progressed. In those moments, sometimes it was the beauty of the melodies, and sometimes it was the sentiment in the lyrics, introductions, or spoken-word narratives. At other times, it was probably due to hearing such music within the vibrant sanctuary, with its amazing one-hundred-foot stained glass sculpture above the choir loft; or the projections of colorful sunsets, volcanoes, ocean waves, and excerpts from Maya Angelou’s inspiring poems flashed at exactly the right time during a song.

But in the end, it is the seamless merge of the tenor, baritone, and bass parts, and the clarity of the phrasing and enunciation by the Chorus’ 80 voices under Cates’s baton that made the 14 songs and medleys performed work. Trust me, folks: hearing this level of proficiency, hearing the harmonies, dynamics, and crisp lyrics all working together this well in live performance by 80 voices is something very, very special.

Yes, of course, the songs have to be superb for it all to come together of a piece, and indeed, there was not a weak spot on the program tonight. The songs were powerful, heartfelt; and had dramatic heft both individually and altogether. Beginning with the inspiring “Calling My Children Home,” continuing with the world premiere of “As I Have Loved You,” and on through “Everything Possible” and “I Sing Out”—all of the material was engaging, uplifting, and entertaining, too.

The second half of the intermission-free evening took the dramatic level up even higher still, with back-to-back renditions of “Like Dust I Rise,” a song cycle of four poems by Maya Angelou (“On the Pulse of Morning,” “Caged Bird,” “Equality,” “Still I Rise”) set to music and arranged by Mark Hayes, and the song “I Love You More,” which is from Tyler’s Suite, a nine-piece choral work dedicated to the memory of Tyler Clementi, a young musician who died by suicide after being bullied by his roommate during his first weeks of college. Both selections featured both the Chorus and fine soloists, including Ron Williams, Scott Ireland, Dr. Paul Bolton, R. Elise Pointer, and Kelly Marzett on the former, and the always-terrific Nancy Nail on the latter.

I am embarrassed to say I was unaware before tonight of just how significant the work of Mark Hayes is as a composer, pianist, and conductor—we are fortunate that he calls Kansas City home. For this evening’s concert, besides being the composer/arranger of “I Sing Out,” “Grace,” and “Like Dust I Rise,” Hayes accompanied the Chorus on several of these songs, and also performed four songs from his recent album, either as solos or with cellist Sascha Groschang. “Rhapsody;” “Improvisation on ‘O Waly Waly’” (“The Water Is Wide”); a fine chart of “Over the Rainbow;” and a version of “How Great Thou Art,” which had both a contemporary touch and a bit of an old-time, Baptist-barrelhouse gospel feel, were all very well done.

I will also mention the other fine musicians who contributed so subtly and so well to many of the arrangements: Ron Ernst on drums, Ry Kincaid on bass, Greg Maupins on percussion, and particularly the Chorus’ regular pianist, Robert Lamar Sims. And not to forget the wonderful ALS interpreter Jeffrey Dunlap.

So, even though a time machine can’t take me back to the Heartland Men’s Chorus shows I unfortunately missed, this superb retrospective was a great reminder not to let it happen again.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
From the Heart
November 10, 2017
United Methodist Church of the Resurrection
13720 Roe Ave, Leawood, KS

Copyright © 2017 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

Show me the tunes!

By Anthony Rodgers June 13, 2017

The Heartland Men’s Chorus paid tribute to the American musical this weekend with glitz, glamour, and games in “Show Tune Showdown” at the Folly Theater.

The Theater District in New York City draws millions of persons to a variety of staged productions, and is a strong part of the American artistic tradition. This weekend, the Heartland Men’s Chorus took to the Folly Stage to prove that there’s indeed no business like show business. In Show Tune Showdown, HMC traveled through history to briefly examine the development of the American musical then played some games while keeping it light, keeping it fun, and keeping it gay.

The Chorus began strong, filling the theater with energy from its first notes and receiving immediate applause. 100 Years of Broadway is a mash-up of many beloved tunes from the vast history of the American musical arranged by Mac Huff. Brian Ellison provided guiding narration and historical tidbits with great showmanship and pizzazz for this large work. The HMC Chamber Ensemble sang recognizable numbers from Tin Pan Alley, including “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Blend and balance was great overall within the smaller group despite some difficultly with sound projection due to the distance between the ensemble and the mics. “Setting the Standards” featured selections from the legendary duo of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. Goofy antics accompanied numbers such as “Anything You Can Do” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” and the Chorus didn’t sacrifice good musicality for the gestures. R. Elise Pointer sang “How Are Things In Glocca Morra” with a beautiful, sensual tone, and choral harmonies in “If I Loved You” were rich and gorgeous.

“The Golden Years” is a fast-paced sampling of the musical’s greatest hits, and HMC delivered a magnificent display of showmanship for the eyes and ears alike. Featured musicals included Cabaret(“Wilkommen”), Guys and Dolls (“Luck Be A Lady”), The Fantasticks (“Try To Remember”), My Fair Lady(“On The Street Where You Live”), and Camelot (“If Ever I Would Leave You”). Particular homage was also given to two other big names of the musical world: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. In the short segment “Breaking New Ground,” these composers’ haunting lyricism and vibrant harmonies came through in the hits “The Music of the Night” and “Send in the Clowns.”

As a whole, the production of 100 Years of Broadway was fantastic and fun. A small group of dancers provided simple yet effective choreography that helped paint a larger picture of each individual show. Some chorus members donned frocks and heels for drag appearances by the likes of Dolly Gallagher Levi, Norma Desmond, and a gruff, cigar-toting Annie. The lighting was brilliant and depicted the moods of various numbers wonderfully, including the heavenly purity of Jesus Christ Superstar and the bloody acts of Sweeney Todd. A pit of musicians headed by Robert Lamar Sims, piano, was also great, although the trumpets began to sound tired and inaccurate too early in the show.

The second half of the evening featured the titular Show Tunes Showdown: a game show hosted by Ellison with all the over-the-top shenanigans one could hope for. Contestants from the audience were announced, and brought to the stage to compete with buzzers, hidden props, and a large spinning wheel. In between rounds, the Chorus entertained with more Broadway medleys arranged by Huff and featuring numbers from more recent shows, such as HairsprayAvenue QInto the Woods, and Rent. The audience was encouraged to sing along, assisted by superscript lyrics; there was a significant amount of participation during “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” “Seasons of Love,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” A final collection of songs Broad-Gay Medley, arranged by Holt McCarley, was a delightful finale featuring the homo-iconic “I Am What I Am” and a rousing “Freak Flag” for an inclusive sendoff that encapsulated the spirit of HMC and their artistic dedication to Kansas City.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
Show Tune Showdown

June 10 – 11 (Reviewed: Sunday, June 11, 2017)
Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO

Copyright © 2017 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

Heartland Men's Chorus

‘Identify’ with emotional purpose

By Anthony Rodgers March 27, 2017

This past weekend, the Heartland Men’s Chorus was joined by special guests the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, and speakers Morgana Bailey and Jane Clementi in their spring production at the Folly Theater titled “Identify,” featuring the Midwest premiere of “Tyler’s Suite,” and emotionally-charged themes of anti-bullying and acceptance.

In 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi took his life at the age of 18 after becoming the victim of cyberbullying regarding a private sexual encounter made public without his consent. This is, however, only a single example of cyberbullying within the LGBT community, which is committed by persons of various ages, races, sexual orientations, religious and political affiliations, etc. As a response and with efforts to raise awareness of bullying, composer Stephen Schwartz—known for his Broadway works including PippinGodspell, and Wicked—gathered a group of composers to create the nine-movement choral work Tyler’s Suite. In collaboration with the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, the Heartland Men’s Chorus gave the Midwest premiere of the large work this past weekend at the Folly Theater. For this concert event titled “Identify,” speakers Morgana Bailey and Jane Clementi were also present for a heartbreaking and inspirational production that addressed the concepts of bullying, identity, and love for all in an emotionally memorable way.

More commonly known for his classical output, Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg wrote the folk song “Brothers, Sing On!” which was first performed in 1883 and has since grown in popularity with glee clubs and men’s choruses. As the opening number, this song acted as a great demonstration of the combined choirs’ powerful and beautiful sound, greeting the audience “with glad and open hearts.” Tyler’s Suite followed, and brought with it an immediate shift in mood. A talented violinist, Tyler’s musical voice is represented by a solo violin in the opening of the work, performed this weekend by Dr. Michalis Koutsoupides. Although his sound was lovely, Koutsoupides played the opening material, composed by John Corigliano, in a manner that lacked a musical connection of phrases, often resulting in disjunct chunks of music that didn’t feel related to one another. The work continues to tell the story of Tyler growing up interested in the unicycle and leaving for college, including numbers based on numerous interviews with Tyler’s immediate family. Standout numbers include Craig Carnelia’s “The Unicycle Song,” which featured the youthful enthusiasm of soloist Daniel Alford and impressive juggling and balancing feats on an actual unicycle by another performer. Michael L. De Voe was resonant and emphatic as Tyler’s father in “Just A Boy” by John Bucchino, while Nancy Nail brought still emotion to the stage as Tyler’s mother in the 11 o’clock number “I Love You More” by Ann Hampton Callaway (arranged by Tim Sarsany). In the closing movement, “The Narrow Bridge” by Jake Heggie, soloist Michael Schnetzer sang with great ease and stunning beauty, and this reviewer wishes there were a bigger role for him in this production. After the performance, Jane Clementi, Tyler’s real-life mother, spoke of her son’s life and legacy through her personal work and the work of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, seeking an end to “online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces, and faith communities,” according to the organization’s website. While much of the music is forgettable after a first listen, this work packs an emotional punch that lasts long after the music ends while serving a valuable purpose in the fight for acceptance and equality.

As the guest chorus, members of TCGMC, under the direction of Dr. Ben Riggs and accompanied by Timothy De Prey, presented a short program of songs that highlighted their fantastic blending capabilities. Numbers for the full chorus, Kin by Timothy C. Takach and Our America by Ben Allaway, were simple and to the point with regard to the lyrics, fitting for the production’s overarching theme. The TCGMC Chamber Singers were wonderful, singing Shine by Timothy Snyder with enthusiasm and exceptional sensitivity to the music, great pitch accuracy, and beautiful uniformity within parts that combined for a marvelous chamber sound.

With Robert Lamar Sims at the piano, HMC and artistic director Dustin S. Cates began their portion of the program with sonic strength in Dan Forrest’s The Music of Living, though some of the nuanced dynamic changes could have been more pronounced for a greater effect. While their other pieces were performed well and with good musicality, the lyrics of You Have More Friends Than You Know were a little trite and forced, though appropriate for the program’s theme.

During transitions between choirs, Morgana Bailey spoke of her life and the struggle many feel to expose their true self in all aspects of one’s life. Based in Kansas City, she garnered international attention with her 2014 TED Talk “The Danger of Hiding Who You Are,” which has since been viewed almost 2.6 million times. Quoting Toni Morrison, Bailey agrees that “there are more scary things inside than outside,” and that vocalizing one’s individual differences may release a person from the power and fear held over them.

Joining forces again, the combined choir performed a mashup of Randy Stonehill’s “I Love You” and the beloved song “What A Wonderful World.” The pieces line-up rather nicely in this arrangement by Craig Hella Johnson, though the sheer numbers of performers took away from the sense of intimacy the arrangement was designed to have. To close the program, Joseph Marin’s Give ‘Em Hope was a rousing number based on the words of LGBT activist and politician Harvey Milk, during which uniform clapping began as soon as the gospel feel was officially established; this encouraged some members of the audience to join in on the night re
viewed before a more cheerful departure from the theater.

Tragedy often yields opportunity for great artistic output for both personal catharsis and larger subject awareness, and such is the case with the death of Tyler Clementi and those who have struggled with instances of bullying in the LGBT community. HMC and TCGMC both did wonderful work with Tyler’s Suite and their respective programming to bring musical attention to this topic and reminding us all, in the words of Harvey Milk, that “hope will never be silent.”

Heartland Men’s Chorus
March 25 — 25 (Reviewed: Saturday, March 25, 2017)
Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO

Copyright © 2017 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

Heartland Men's Chorus

(Christmas) hammin’ it up

By Kristin Shafel Omiccioli December 8, 2015

Heartland Men’s Chorus kicked off its 30th season with its “non-traditional tradition,” Kansas City Christmas: a weekend of choral holiday cheer at the Folly Theater.

A trumpet duo called the Heartland Men’s Chorus concert to order Friday night, followed by chorus members placed throughout the aisles, on a sober Personent Hodie arrangement by Lara Hoggard. The final line, a strong unison of all voices, was majestic and beautifully set the tone of the first half, which included more traditional holiday selections. With a mixture of sacred and secular, old and new, familiar and perhaps not-so well known, Dustin Cates’s programming was a testament to the historical themes of the season—peace, togetherness, acceptance, good cheer—while striking me as rather timely messaging for today’s tumultuous world, too.

The first half showcased works that had some of the most complex polyphony, mixed meter, and counterpoint I’ve heard from HMC, including a set of Hovland’s The Glory of the Father (excerpt) and Powell’s The Word was God, Helvey’s trio of Christmas carols (“Fum, Fum, Fum,” “Coventry Carol,” and “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”), and selections from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. The chorus shined in its comfort zone during this half’s heartfelt “The Ground” from Gjeilo’s Sunrise Massand the lively African-American spiritual Child of God, which gave guest pianist Jan Willbanks the spotlight, rockin’ licks on the keys in a swinging blues style.

HMC included its Jewish members and friends in its holiday celebration with Knecht’s Shalom Aleikhem, featuring Max H. Brown in a committed, dignified solo introduction, and Alex Bency added a delicate touch with his cello part. On the second half, after a dramatic flourish on the piano by accompanist Lamar Sims, the HeartAches octet put an upbeat spin on Hanukkah songs—usually minor-keyed or phrygian—with “Boogie Woogie Hanukkah,” revealing a playful and acute sense of humor both musically and lyrically.

After intermission, HMC worked the Christmas ham (figuratively!) with a few recognizable standards (the jolly “We Need a Little Christmas” and a rock version of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and several newer pop tunes, including the saccharine local holiday anthem “Christmas in Kansas City.” The second half of the night was replete with HMC’s signature camp, light choreography, and costuming. A troupe of choristers dressed as the reindeer for “Rudolph,” with literal translations of their names (Blitzen was blitzed, Comet had cleaning supplies, etc.), and the men whipped out their cell phones to accompany the Straight No Chaser tune “Text Me Merry Christmas.” Brandon Shelton was convincing as the sassy letter writer to Santa, unapologetic for his cheeky request in “I Want a Lumbersexual for Christmas.”

Many fine soloists from the ensemble were featured throughout the evening, on classics and pop songs alike. Mike Sigler, at first an unassuming presence on stage, brought forth a robust, arresting tenor on two pieces of the Britten set. Tone Stowers and Jason Taylor flavored their solos (on Jewel’s “Hands” and “Christmas in Kansas City,” respectively) with a melismatic R&B pop sound, while Terry W. Christensen and Rob Curry gave tender interpretations apropos to the timely sentiments in the lyrics of their solos (introductions to “Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Merry Everything,” respectively). Keith Widenkeller provided the solemn, gentle solo on this year’s “Ad Astra” tribute, “Auld Lang Syne,” as the chorus behind him linked arms as commonly practiced in Scotland.

The stand-out piece of the concert was undoubtedly “Marvelous Holiday Sweater,” which featured Adam Brown not only in a hearty solo part, but also in a light-up tie and matching jacket as he “emceed” a “fashion show” of the tackiest, most over-the-top sweaters imaginable. Closing the night was a bright rendition of Andy Beck’s  “Let There Be Peace,” led by soloist R. Elise Pointer who embellished this spiritual-like tune with enthusiasm that brought down the house.

Dustin Cates, now in his second year as HMC’s artistic director, has continued and expanded on HMC’s strong presence in the Kansas City arts scene. His arrangements (almost half the tunes on this program) cater to the chorus’s strengths while still challenging them. With local pride being at epic levels, Cates decided to stick with last year’s “Kansas City Christmas” theme once again, especially after finding the perfect item to exhibit as the centerpiece of the expectedly incredible set. An original Manneco crown, once an iconic part of downtown Kansas City during the holidays, sparkled above the chorus in all its authentic, regal glory.

Heartland Men’s Chorus

Kansas City Christmas
December 4–6 (Reviewed Friday, December 4, 2015)
Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO

Copyright © 2015 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

Seasonal sass

By Anthony Rodgers December 5, 2016

Heartland Men’s Chorus spread their holiday cheer this weekend with “Kansas City Christmas: Classy, Brassy, Sassy!” at the Folly Theater, combining traditional carols and their signature camp for a delightful program of festive fun.

One of the most powerful qualities of the Heartland Men’s Chorus is their dedication to a warm and blended sound, which was a wonderful aspect to this program full of well-known tunes. During The First Noel, the richness of the men’s voices combined to be heavenly. Even with choreography—and exciting lighting design—the chorus didn’t let the sound falter during Jingle Bells, and setting unexpected goofiness aside, the accompaniment sound during O Holy Night was resonant and strong.

Early in the evening, HMC featured an arrangement of John Rutter’s Gloria by Tim Sarsany for men’s chorus, brass, and percussion. The chorus did well with the change of pace from their typical fare, navigating the active counterpoints and precise Latin. During the faster sections of the work, the chorus sounded more comfortable compared to the Andante movement, which felt labored but retained a mysterious quality. Newly commissioned for this program, Winter Mantra by Hans Heruth resembled a superhero film score in triumph over the cold.

Robert Lamar Sims was outstanding as the pianist for the chorus, never wavering in his persistent playing. His flourishes in Gloria were light and directional, and one could sense the changing levels of intense emotion he put into each piece. Additional instrumentalists accompanied the chorus on many numbers, but often the sound levels were unfortunately unequal. A collection of brass players is not uncommon to be seen around the holidays, but the group for this concert met their match against the powerful voices. Only the trumpets were somewhat audible during the majority of their pieces, which was, truthfully, disappointing for a program advertising “brassy” sounds. Although the drum set was a little too heavy during the standard I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, percussive sounds were a positive addition, such as the steady shaker in Deck the Halls. A quality blend of the musical sounds was only achieved during Mark Hayes’s arrangement of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. A drumline of snare drums appeared for an exciting version of Little Drummer Boy that was a crowd favorite with its complex rhythms and dramatic gestures.

During their traditional setting of the French carol Pat-a-Pan, a militant tambourine accompanied the HMC Chamber Ensemble, but the singers articulated well enough that the words could still be heard. Another smaller group from the chorus performed an animated number with The Annoying Drummer Boy, featuring a gruff Nativity scene and a ragtag musician looking to be heard. The camp continued with the hilarious Recycle the Fruitcake, a dazzling production including grandmas, pirates, and dancing fruitcakes.

“We sing for something greater than ourselves,” said artistic director Dustin S. Cates, as he reflected on the past year, during which HMC has experienced both great performances and great loss. In tribute of their Ad Astra members (those who have passed away), an arrangement of Erin Propp’s The Frost by Absalon Figueroa was an emotional number and featured a stunning a capella section. A performance of the late Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was also a moving gesture, as the chorus exited the stage to surround the audience with additional warmth.

HMC will take their holiday cheer to Johnson County Community College with a repeat performance of this weekend’s program on December 10.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
Kansas City Christmas: Classy, Brassy, Sassy!
December 3–4 (Reviewed Saturday, December 3, 2016)
Folly Theater
300 W 12th St., Kansas City, MO

December 10, 2016
Carlsen Center, Yardley Hall, JCCC Campus
12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, KS

Copyright © 2016 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

Singing for our lives

By Lee Hartman June 14, 2016

Celebrating thirty years as one of the nation’s most renowned GALA chorus, the Heartland Men’s Chorus’s “I Rise” concert on Saturday night looked back on its history and hinted at what’s to come.

Apologies. This is a difficult review to write—if you’ll even call it a review—in the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history when, on Sunday, 49 LGBTQ brothers and sisters were killed and 53 injured during Latin night at Pulse, a gay nightclub (a sanctuary for those who don’t understand and have never understood the importance of such spaces) in Orlando, Florida. I spent much of Sunday, barely holding back tears, in communication with people I know in Orlando and around the country, sharing in their grief and anger.

Drew Leinonen’s mother appeared onscreen tearfully and frantically searching for her son, seeking answers. We now know both he and his boyfriend, Juan Ramon Guerrero, were among the deceased. Instead of getting married, they’ll now be buried next to each other. I texted my mom, sister, and mother-in-law to tell them I loved them bunches. My husband, Thomas, was flying, and we didn’t know what to say to each other besides, “I love you, I miss you, I wish you were here.” I remember doing the same on 9/11 with my parents. A modicum of relief came when all the members of the Mid America Freedom Band’s sister band the Central Florida Sounds of Freedom Band and Color Guard checked in as safe. Their fifth anniversary concert was scheduled that same day. The band proudly and defiantly performed as scheduled, though some audiences members chose not to attend as they didn’t feel safe.

More victims’ names started being released, with ages, biographies, and photographs. I did not hold back the tears then. These 49 souls look like my friends, my students, my colleagues, my neighbors, but most of all they looked like potential. Potential that will now be unfulfilled, unrealized; hopes and dreams tragically cut short. They were sons and daughters, parents, husbands, boyfriends, wives, girlfriends, nurses, teachers, accountants, students, retail clerks, travel agents, pharmacy techs, entertainers, and ride operators, but importantly they were LGBTQ and allied human beings, with an infinite capacity for love and to be loved. They were attacked for identifying as such. I am crushed, nearly broken, by a profound sadness that wildly vacillates to rage when I read hollow expressions of “thoughts and prayers” from those who at every other turn seek to discredit, besmirch, belittle, blame, degrade, and support those who regularly preach death to those in the LGBTQ community. My grief manifested in an unabated two-day-long screaming headache as some in the media and my social circles downplayed or outright ignored the fact that this was an attack on the LGBTQ community. This attack can be both homophobic and terrorism—the two are not mutually exclusive—but how tragic it is declare it an act of terrorism more readily than one of homo/transphobia. So again, apologies to you, the reader, and to the Heartland Men’s Chorus for giving less than my impartial best as I reflect on Saturday’s performance with Sunday’s acts weighing so heavily.

With eighteen selections from its earliest years to world premieres for tomorrow, HMC’s leapfrogging, overstuffed program was interspersed with earnest anecdotes from founders, former artistic directors, and key staff people and members. These interstitial monologues, though touching and informative, were a bit long in the tooth. J. Kent Barnhart, for instance, spoke for more than 20 minutes, and it makes me wonder why HMC chose to do this for its 30th anniversary instead of say the landmark ones like 20, 25, or 50.  Are we to expect this every five years? If so it will lose its impact.

What won’t lose its impact are the powerful pieces interspersed with the lighter fare. Bright Morning Stars Are Rising was gorgeous from start to finish as was “We’re Not Lost, We’re Here” from Naked Man featuring a belting solo from Michael Schnetzer and “Tired of the Silence” from I Am Harvey Milk. Kelly Marzett, in drag, brought down the house with a hilarious take on “She’s Got You” as she slowly pulled items out of her dress’s copious bodice. Singing for Our Lives, written by Holly Near as she attended Harvey Milk’s memorial, was the most moving moment of the evening and even more so in retrospect. Audience members, at least those from my vantage point in the balcony, stood and joined in the singing of this unofficial anthem of the LGBTQ movement. Many held their loved ones closer and most were teary eyed. Rightfully, HMC reportedly repeated this piece at the vigil following its Sunday performance.

The second half contained some questionable programming choices and horrendously hideous blue bowling shirts. Why the chorus changed out of their sharp tuxedos in favor of such sartorial blasphemy is beyond me. I’m always slightly uncomfortable when majority white gay men appropriate and compare LGBTQ equality struggles to those of African-Americans, especially African-American women, and so numbers like Harriet Tubman by Rollo Dilworth, though dedicated to strong women and well performed, left me uneasy. The new commission, Mark Hayes’s I Rise to the text of Maya Angelou (hailed as the first time the Maya Angelou’s estate has granted a chorus rights to her glorious words, though she and her publishers did allow her words to be used by choruses before her death, however discerning they may have been), fell in that uneasy category. What about using James Baldwin’s text instead? He was a gay, black man of equal prominence, and the immediacy of his words would have been more appropriate. The piece for men’s chorus and chamber orchestra itself is charming and accessible with catchy melodies and rhythmic vitality though jarring in its transitions (or lack thereof). HMC sounded great on the piece as did the pit orchestra. The guest dancers from the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey were an unnecessary addition, completely gilding the lily, especially since the choreography was uninspired and the dancers had only about six feet of depth with which to work. Had the stage been larger and the dancers given more room, my opinion might have changed.

In spite of these criticisms and the nearly three-hour run time, the concert was a well-performed, heartfelt celebration of community while not hiding its blemishes (in-fighting, AIDS crisis, gay male misogyny, etc.). The events of this weekend prove that ensembles like HMC, Kansas City Women’s Chorus, Mid America Freedom Band, PerformOutKC, Heartland Trans Chorus, and the myriad other LGBTQ support organizations are as vital as ever. It’s Pride Month. Celebrate. Be Safe. Be Proud. But don’t be silent. Mourn the dead, but fight like hell for the living.

“We are a gentle, angry people
and we are singing, singing for our lives

We are a justice-seeking people
and we are singing, singing for our lives

We are young and old together
and we are singing, singing for our lives

We are a land of many colors
and we are singing, singing for our lives

We are gay and straight together
and we are singing, singing for our lives

We are a gentle, loving people
and we are singing, singing for our lives”

– Holly Near

Heartland Men’s Chorus

I Rise
June 11–12 (Reviewed, Saturday, June 11, 2016)
Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO
For more information, visit https://hmckc.org

Copyright © 2016 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.

Pitch slapped

By Anthony Rodgers March 22, 2016

Heartland Men’s Chorus followed its own beat this weekend with “Perfect Pitch” featuring a cappella arrangements of popular tunes and concepts from the film “Pitch Perfect” that were a-ca-awesome.

A cappella music has a rich history that has re-entered the mainstream in recent years with the popularity of Straight No Chaser and the Pitch Perfect films. Heartland Men’s Chorus followed its own beat this weekend with “Perfect Pitch” featuring a cappella arrangements of popular tunes and concepts from the film Pitch Perfect that were a-ca-awesome.

“Take Me to Church” was an appropriate selection as one of the opening numbers for this show, hinting at the chapel origins of “a cappella,” and the fun arrangement set the bar high for the popular tunes of the night. The chorus strove to maintain a high level of energy needed when singing without instruments. Some rough starts were had, as pitch centers felt unclear, including “Pompeii” and “Some Nights,” but the eventual addition of piano and percussion to these numbers solidified the sound and added a wonderful depth to songs that are rarely heard without accompaniment. A Cappella was a spoken adventure in rhythm to creatively define the genre and highlighted great diction from each member of the chorus.

Smaller ensembles broke out for some songs. The HMC Chamber Ensemble sang the beautiful “If I Loved You” from Carousel, featuring a wide vocal range across the group, but also a hesitancy that is only fitting for the characters from the staged duet. “She Goes Shopping for Gucci” was a cute number by Burnt Ends with great accuracy in the highest voices and a touch of goofiness.

Luke Harbur joined HMC with some serious beatboxing skills. While many attempt percussive sounds with cute “boots and cats” jokes, the art of beatboxing can have a transformative effect on a performance. During Beatbox Extravaganza, Harbur suspended time with rhythm and was so aware of all surrounding vibrations that he incorporated the sounds of cheers into his number on the night reviewed. With the chorus, Harbur kept things simple while supporting the voices. Guest group KC A Cappalla is a local ensemble comprised of high-school students with great talent. Performing with such great energy and uniformity, they almost stole the show. Watching them, it was evident that the members were enjoying themselves—a visual aspect that speaks volumes to an audience. The soloists were fantastic and the choreography was fun; the group is an up-and-coming gem of the city.

A few classics found their way into the pop-centric program. With soloists placed in the box seats, Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria was stunning and instantly gave me chills when the lushness of the chorus swept through the theater. One of my favorite British folk songs, “Loch Lomond” featured the rich vocal talents of Michael De Voe with a lovely chordal backing. This arrangement by Jonathan Quick gradually shifted to a more uplifting style, lending a more optimistic interpretation of the poetry. “Home on the Range” gave a nod to the a cappella styles of barbershop quartets—with more than four singers this time—and settled into the familiar mash-up of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and “Over the Rainbow.”

Lighting becomes drama becomes everything. From brilliant colors to fitting projections, the lighting design was well thought out and considered each number to be a new canvas in need. During “Radioactive,” the chorus was involved with some mesmerizing flashlight-ography to give a visual “welcome to the new age.” And what HMC concert wouldn’t be complete without some drag? Pom-pom toting cheerleaders rooted for the KC Bar B Qs in “Cheerleader” while getting a little acrobatic near the end. The soloists in “Bellas Finals” from Pitch Perfect were sensational as they mimicked the choreography and character antics from the movie in signature scarves and heels.

Heartland Men’s Chorus certainly knows how to entertain, and its dedication to a higher level of musical excellence propels it to the fore of fun Kansas City ensembles that are not to be missed.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
Perfect Pitch

March 19–20 (Reviewed Saturday, March 19, 2016)
Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO

Copyright © 2016 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.