The First Concert
Heartland Men’s Chorus performed its debut concert at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Pierson Hall on December 14, 1986.
In the summer of that year, James Morache, a former priest from Kansas City, visited Minneapolis and attended an early GALA Choruses Festival, a national gathering of gay and lesbian choruses. He returned to Kansas City, told his friends what he had experienced, and said Kansas City needed its own men’s chorus. The debut concert’s first program thanked James “for his vision.”
James reached out to Father Ambrose at Notre Dame de Sion, who served briefly as the Chorus’s first director. When Father Ambrose stepped aside, Stephen Johnson and Rande Stewart assumed artistic leadership, and co-directed the first concert.
“Rande and I went to Wingert-Jones Music on Broadway and ransacked their TTBB musical offering,” said Stephen, who is still an active HMC member today. In choosing repertoire, they considered musical difficulty, range of styles “and, frankly, cost.”
The Chorus rehearsed for the concert at Notre Dame de Sion, seated on small chairs intended for 2nd grade children. (Later the Chorus members were able to secure adult-sized chairs.)
For that first concert, the Chorus did not have the infrastructure of staff and production team members that it enjoys today. All the tasks—and costs—related to producing the concert fell to the members themselves.
“Creating the programs, selling those little business card-sized ads, selling tickets, arranging for the performance space—it was a whirlwind of activity,” said Stephen.
“We were thankful for that since we were dealing with the loss of two Chorus members from AIDS before we even got to our first concert. Ad Astra [the list of HMC members who have passed away, printed in every concert program] started from the very beginning of the life the Chorus.”
Although HMC was founded at the height of the AIDS crisis and served as a place for those grappling with the disease to find community and support, it was not founded because of it. It was born, instead, out of a love for music and its power to enlighten, inspire, heal and empower.
The debut concert program was dedicated to the memory of Brian McGlothlin, one of two members who died during the first rehearsal period. Another member, Dennis Lowerey, died from meningitis because no doctor would treat him. His AIDS quilt panel, at left, displays the Chorus’s first logo.
Despite the zeal to start a gay men’s chorus in Kansas City, there was considerable internal debate surrounding how overt to be concerning the Chorus’s identity. The omission of the word “gay” from HMC’s name was intentional and emblematic of the struggle many members felt about being involved; they wanted to sing with their brothers but didn’t want to be “outed” in the process. Keith Grahl, another original member still singing with HMC, speaks to this internal angst:
“When we were getting ready to start the first concert, I was surprised at how many people came to hear us,” said Keith.
“I was also petrified that someone would recognize me, out me and cause me to lose my job. I almost didn’t sing that day. I was a speech therapist in the Raytown school district and they had a very strict morals code in our contract; they could have fired me over this. After the performance they wanted to take a group photo. I, and a few others, decided it was not in our best interest to be in that picture, which I regret to this day, as people have asked me many times why I wasn’t in the picture. It was a wonderful concert and I loved it, and decided that I had to continue, whatever the risk.”