Queer Music in Pride Week

June 24, 2008

On an old episode of the irreverent animated series South Park, the Colorado boys' parents force the gang into a children's choir called, not so subtly, "Getting Gay With Kids." I think the character Cartman best summed up many Americans' attitude: "Dude man, choirs are gay."
Choral singing in the 19th century, however, developed as a large participatory cultural activity. It was held in such esteem that it would be best to speak of choral music as a normalizing activity, and quite conservative. In America, we see remnants of this age. The largest American musical organizations in the 19th century were the Handel and Haydn Society, followed by Philadelphia's Mendelssohn Society, and the Cincinnati May choral festival, all the largest musical gatherings of their day.

And then, of course, there is the music. Can music be gay? Some reputable musicologists have tied themselves in knots trying to read a queer literary theory to music, an art to which any literary theory is often poorly suited. That said, I think it would be hard for modern evangelists of culture to point to standard art music repertory and decry it as: "This music is (1) White, (2) Male, and (3) Proper." Such a claim lacks historical legitimacy, even if the face-value assertion is utterly true. (My thanks to Dean Alan Jones of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral for tightening my thoughts on this matter.)

Yet we can refer to the body of, say, African-American spirituals and say this music is "black." There is a struggle and identity to the music, but I would go further to suggest a basic authenticity.

Golden Gate Men’s Chorus

As an official event of San Francisco's Gay Pride celebration this week, the Golden Gate Men's Chorus, under the direction of Joseph Jennings, presented a concert Sunday evening on themes of homosexual love — by extension, a concert of gay music. GGMC is one of over 200 gay choruses in the United States, as estimated by the Gay and Lesbian Allied Choruses Association (GALA), the national service organization for such choruses.
Making a Statement
By performing at all (even show and pop repertory generally outside of this journal's aesthetic), a gay men's chorus makes a statement: by adopting conservative means to publicly proclaim one's identity when it is acceptable to disparage, exclude, and hate that identity in many educated and respectable circles and institutions in this country, and have it be criminalized in most of the world.

The sound of a good men's chorus is always thrilling, and Jennings' singers sounded exceptionally good, offering a highly blended and consistently well-tuned tone. I never felt Jennings was pushing the limits of his volunteer singers, and they met the challenge of quite advanced repertory. If I felt any consistent room for improvement, it would have been better care with vowel purity; American diphthongs were especially distracting in the mostly Latin first half.

New works for choir are often out of touch with compositional trends for other mediums. GGMC offered Latin works by Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis and Southern Californian David Montoya on the first half, alongside the arrangements for men's choir of standard choral works by Louis Lewandowski and Samuel Barber. Both Miskinis' and Montoya's works, although crafted and beautiful, built on popular choral techniques of close-knit harmonies and aleatoric gimmicks. Montoya's Little Mass for Men's Voices welcomed the pure-voiced contributions of countertenor soloist Shawn-Lin Dzeng.

Much better was the premiere of Steven Sametz' cycle We Two, to poems of Walt Whitman, which opened the second half. Sametz, a professor at Lehigh University, is one of America's most respected choral composers. Whitman's text is rather dense and sensual, and Sametz had quite a challenge bringing musical illumination to the meaning. I felt Sametz' personal harmonic vocabulary set an appropriate mood for the texts, and the overall cycle was dignified and moving. It was the best music on the concert, and worthy of wider performance.

The main news of the evening was the premiere of David del Tredici's Queer Hosannas, a cycle of three weighty choral works for men's chorus and virtuosic piano four hands (played here, excitingly and sensitively, by Alex Lu and Keisuke Nakagoshi). In recent years, del Tredici, a composer of international repute across many mediums, has made something of a cottage industry for himself composing works speaking for the gay experience, which he describes as "until recently ... virtually invisible in the world of classical music."
Music Out of Its Time
My first reaction to del Tredici's cycle was to check my calendar. Was this written in the 21st century? Although the new choral works from the first half may have slanted toward the romantic and lush, they were at least of our own time. Tredici's choral work went on for minutes on end, indistinguishable from a Strauss melodrama. Piano four hands? How Fanny Mendelssohn! I kept scratching my head trying to figure out which Liszt menagerie was being quoted at the end of the first work, "Whitmansexual."

If there was a coded message to this Romanticism ("neo" doesn't apply here), I could not find it. Composers often reference and quote the musical materials of the past, either mysteriously (Shostakovich's frequent quotation of famous themes comes to mind) or through stylistic updates (Britten's neo-Tudor works). I felt del Tredici just slapped random poetry from A Different Light Bookstore onto Strauss' Enoch Arden.

The composer showed an even more disturbing problem, and it's one that I've noticed in other works of his (most notably his bad song cycle Gay Life, premiered at the San Francisco Symphony in 2001). Generally, when setting text, he runs out of verse before the music is over, and has no solution but to go back to some place and repeat. This is a fine enough technique if the climax of a text is at the end, but here it was a pacing problem.

Finally, del Tredici jinxes future performances by introducing a mini mariachi-band in the cycle's conclusion, "Carioca Boy!" (a paean to a swarthy, sexy Brazilian). Suddenly, the wholly unnecessary percussion ensemble makes the work three times more expensive to perform. Otherwise, this tuneful, Latin-infused finale was toe-tappingly enjoyable, the choral equivalent of Gershwin's naively popular Danzon Cubano: karaoke boy.

I hope that someday pride celebrations will go the way of St. Patrick's Day parades — celebratory artifacts of a struggle essentially over. A nonexplicitly gay ensemble, however, might feel squeamish performing the composed "out" man-on-man orgasm concluding "Then and Yes," the second of del Tredici's Queer Hosannas. Yet such an ensemble could easily tackle the subtly gay themes of, say, Britten's opera Death in Venice. I suspect such squeamishness comes from discomfort surrounding sexuality rather than homosexuality.

Herein lies the problem: Tredici, in all his Victorian frillery and decadence, seems out of touch. He speaks another's musical voice while speaking for others. This is stock multiculturalism: musical Warhol.

This program repeats Tuesday, June 24, at 8 p.m. at the recital hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street.

Thomas Busse, www.tbusse.com, is a professional tenor.