‘Tis the Season since, well, 1998, I had my first chance to hear the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles perform live this past weekend, and at the Walt Disney Concert Hall no less.
Now celebrating their 32nd season, GMCLA is one of the oldest continuous such ensembles in the US. Sure on This Shining Night, the chorale’s August 21 concert, highlighted its strengths but also featured a pair of misguided artistic choices that threatened to sabotage the evening. Fortunately, two significant and impressive premieres kept the 130-member chorale from the brink.
The first act started well enough, with gorgeous renditions of Kevin Robison’s “In the Space of Now” and David Conte’s “Invocation/Dance,” the latter inspired by three verses from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
These were followed by a diverse selection of songs arranged under the heading “Golden Light.” Included was a hymn by Russian composer Pavel Tchesnokov proclaiming (in Russian, naturally) “Salvation is made in the midst of the earth, O God, Alleluia”; a musical setting of James Agee’s poem, “Sure on This Shining Night”; and Tom Brown’s contemporary and deeply moving “Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr.”, about a childhood friend who died of AIDS.
Act I concluded with six selections from famous operas by male composers, which marked the first misstep of the evening. While the excerpts were adequately performed by the choir, the section went on too long, especially in the absence of storylines or theatrical scenery. Also, some of the soloists fell short (bass John Musselman and tenor Jerry Cordova were honorable exceptions to this).
After this interminable interlude and the show’s intermission, Act II began impressively with the world premiere performance of “The End of It All” by electronica composer/DJ John Tejada. Tejada was present to “perform” his piece on laptop and sound console (and, of note, got married the next day to LA PR diva and Movie Dearest friend, Lynn Hasty; Congratulations!).
It was impossible not to bop one’s head or tap one’s feet during “The End of It All,” which I really hope was recorded or will be soon. The mash-up of male chorale voices and techno was inspired and will no doubt be popular in dance clubs and adventurous music halls alike. Steven Young’s lighting design provided perfect support, not only during this number but also throughout the concert.
GMCLA Executive Director Hywel Sims then proudly introduced — rightly so — the debut of the chorale’s new Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Youth Choir. A collaborative effort between the GMCLA and area high schools, this strongly-voiced, high-energy ensemble blew the audience away, especially during their medley of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” A rousing standing ovation followed.
Sadly, a great deal of enthusiasm was then drained as we were subjected to “The Harvey Milk Schools Project.” Another and no doubt worthy collaboration between GMCLA and area schools, it recounts the story of the late, openly gay San Francisco supervisor’s life and assassination interspersed with familiar show tunes and pop songs.
Since Harvey’s story was recently told in the award-winning movie Milk and seen by most of the audience, it was overly familiar and decidedly less artistically-staged. It needlessly inflated the evening to nearly three hours, although the GSA Youth Choir returned thankfully for the concert’s finale: great renditions of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Michael Jackson’s Free Willy theme song, “Will You Be There?”
While I was very happy to finally see GMCLA perform live, I was underwhelmed by some of their selections. If interim Artistic Director Dominic Gregorio is to blame, “Sure on This Shining Night” marked the end of his involvement with the choir. I am looking forward to what GMCLA will do next.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.