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
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Copyright © 2016 Used by permission.