SF Gay Men’s Chorus creates “Songs of the Phoenix” with 13 composers and lyricists
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus hasn’t been seen or heard at Davies Symphony Hall since before the pandemic, but the group’s lush sound is set to return to the venue on April 10 when the choir perform “Voices Rising,” a landmark concert the world premiere of the diverse song cycle “Songs of the Phoenix,” covers of memorable SFGMC commissions and performances, and includes a tribute to the late composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
SFGMC has survived two major pandemics since its founding in 1978 – first with HIV/AIDS, which claimed the lives of over 300 of its members, and now with COVID, which forced the cancellation of the performance of the band at Davies in the spring of 2020 and led to the loss of three of their beloved holiday season gigs in 2021. So “Voices Rising” is a particularly fitting name for a gig in which SFGMC will give voice to its moving stories after the overall silence challenges of the pandemic.
“The real challenge for a choir is that you have to sing together, and with all the technology we have, there’s no platform for choirs to sing together and hear each other,” said the artistic director of SFGMC, Tim Seelig. “If you’ve ever been in a band and tried to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on Zoom, it’s incredibly bad – there’s lag and you can’t sing on Zoom – so you’re really cutting out all the repeats. “
Seelig, who will be one of the winners of “Crescendo,” SFGMC’s 16th annual fundraiser at 6 p.m. April 8 at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, said that except for a rally in outdoors in the Mission Dolores church parking lot last May, the band was unable to rehearse regularly until September — and only when distanced and masked. Rehearsals became difficult again when the omicron variant ended holiday season performances prematurely, but the pandemic imposed additional challenges on the band.
“A choir like the Gay Men’s Chorus is truly a family; it’s a big family with 270 singers, and it becomes your social outlet, your family and your friends, and it’s really important that we do that, and we lost that,” Seelig said. “And the other leg of the stool that’s so important is its activism – we’re a social justice arts organization. We had the community part removed, and we had the activism removed. We could do a virtual video, but we weren’t able to go out and do the kind of performances that we are usually able to do throughout the year.
Indeed, themes of social justice are at the heart of “Songs of the Phoenix,” whose uplifting name also alludes to the mythical bird that adorns the city flag of San Francisco. Thirteen composers and lyricists from diverse backgrounds contributed 10 songs to the song cycle which was curated by Tony Award-nominated Broadway composer Andrew Lippa (2010 for “The Addams Family”) and produced by Oscar winner Bruce Cohen (1999 Best Picture Oscar for “American Beauty”), and they tell stories of hardship, rebirth and victory.
Black gay composer and lyricist Joriah Kwamé, 24, has employed an eclectic mix of musical styles in his career and wrote ‘Song of Tomorrow’, his contribution to ‘Songs of the Phoenix’, with a fusional style he describes as “modern R&B”. and hip-hop meets a choir. Kwamé’s inspiration for “Song of Tomorrow” came from his vision of the searing video of George Floyd, and the song opens with the poignant line: “This face on screen looks a lot like mine, looks like my brother; we could share a mother.
“Seeing the image of a black man murdered in real time by the police was an eye-opening moment for many of us, but specifically for someone of that descent, it touched close to home, c So that’s what I wanted to capture in that front row,” Kwamé said.
The moment of George Floyd’s tragic death in the midst of a pandemic generated a sense of despair and sadness for Kwamé, but also sparked a sense of hope that is at the heart of “Song of Tomorrow.”
“I realized that the hope was not in today but in tomorrow and the changes that this unfortunate situation will bring,” Kwamé said. “It’s a hopeful idea that the song of tomorrow – what the chorus of the song evokes – is saying that, as terrible as these things are that are happening in our history in general, but also in 2020, there will always have hope for the future as long as we can sing into it.
In addition to “Songs of the Phoenix,” which will include narration and choreography provided by the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company, the concert will feature highlights from notable SFGMC commissions: Lippa’s “Unbreakable” and “@queerz.” by Julian Hornik, which was originally slated for release in spring 2020.
SFGMC will also host a 10th anniversary performance of three-time Oscar winner and four-time Grammy Award winner Stephen Schwartz’s “Testimony.” The performance of this work, inspired by the “It Gets Better” project, will follow the enactment of a shameful “Don’t Say Gay” law for LGBTQ+ people in Florida.
“I came out in the 1980s when it was still really tough, but we thought it would get better, and Dan Savage started the ‘It Gets Better’ organization, and, yes, it’s getting better,” said said Seelig. “But I think it’s harder these days to come out – the bashing of LGTBQ people is so rampant – and when Trump was elected we knew the laws would start to be reversed, and do we see that. , and not just in Florida. When I came out 35 years ago, we didn’t have laws against books, for God’s sake!
The anthem to theater legend Sondheim includes a piece from his musical “Assassins,” and SFGMC’s presentation of it will be the first time it has been performed by a choir. The inclusion of this piece came after Lippa called on Sondheim for a composition.
“When Lippa contacted Sondheim, he said, ‘Well, I’m not taking commissions anymore, but I have a piece I’d like to give to the Gay Men’s Chorus,’ Seelig recounted. “We were recording it for him. on Thanksgiving Sunday and he passed away on Friday, and he had asked, ‘Can you please record it for me with singers so I can hear what it’s like. We had 24 singers who had it learned and were ready to record it on Sunday, but he never got to hear it.
Seelig, who will retire this summer from SFGMC, is optimistic about the future of the group.
“The choir, with 44 years behind it – the sky is still the limit – and I have no doubt that my successor, who will be appointed on April 19, will take the choir to even greater heights,” Seelig said effusively. “As has been throughout his history, he has never lacked vision, the choir is 100% focused on his mission and he is going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
IF YOU ARE GOING TO:
San Francisco Gay Male Choir
Or: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave, SF
When: April 10, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $25 to $125
Contact: (415) 392-4400 or sfgmc.org.