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Sounds of the season

Gay-friendly D.C.-area churches prepping Christmas musical offerings

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MCC's Shirli Hughes at a rehearsal Monday night for this weekend's Christmas concerts. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

One of the nice aspects of Washington living is the chance for full LGBT participation in the region’s Christian churches.

And practically all the region’s parishes — from mostly gay gathering spots like Metropolitan Community Church of Washington to welcoming and inclusive worship spaces like National City Christian Church in Thomas Circle — have holiday concerts planned throughout the month.

This weekend’s annual Christmas concert at MCC-DC has become a tradition. This year’s offerings, dubbed “Season of Joy!” are tonight at 7:30 and Saturday at 7. There’s no cost to attend.

“I think so many people really look forward to this particular concert because it really brings so many different people together at one time,” says Shirli Hughes, MCC’s music minister and choir director. “So it’s kind of like sitting down with friends and family for a special meal and it brings a lot of people into the church who might not otherwise come.”

The church’s choirs have a stirring and eclectic set list planned that will dart around from secular to sacred, gospel to contemporary, classical and traditional.

“We’re really covering everything this year,” Hughes, a lesbian, says. “From some old-school R&B with Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas,’ to traditional carols and even an arrangement of the old Three Dog Night song ‘Joy to the World’ that we’ve re-arranged and it just sounds awesome. Plus we’ve got some extra voices this year so it’s an even bigger, more seasoned sound.”

The church’s two choirs — praise and gospel — will feature about 40 singers. A string ensemble will play while attendees arrive and two cellists will accompany the choir along with Hughes, pianist Julio Fonseca, drummer Jonas Baubrun and long-time MCC bassist Wardell Howell. It’s free but an offering will be taken. Last year about 700 attended over two nights.

Charles Miller, organist and minister of music at National City, has a busy month planned as his church will be used for several recitals, concerts and worship services.

“What I think is so magical about this time of year is that there’s something about Christmas music that seems to touch the hearts of everybody whether they’re regular church goers or not,” Miller, who’s gay, says. “These are pieces of music, carols that almost everybody seems to know by heart. You hear people humming them. Everybody knows the words to ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Joy to the World.’ And yeah, there are a lot of high-brow arrangements of Christmas Carols and some very elaborate Christmas music, but the thing is, it’s really about these simple carols. They span generations and church goers versus non-church goers, they span countries and nationalities, so it allows everybody literally to be touched in some way whether they’re Christian or what not.”

Miller plays an organ recital today at 12:15 — a free weekly event his church hosts. He’s planning settings of carols by Bach, Virgil Fox, Richard Purvis and Sigfrid Karg-Elert.

During an interview Tuesday Miller — just returning from an out-of-town family trip for Thanksgiving — joked about his preparation efforts.

“I may try a Virgil Fox arrangement of ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ but don’t count on it,” he said. “It’s a pretty big piece and takes some work to make it sound half-way decent on a pipe organ. We’ll see if I can get my ass in gear and practice.”

On Saturday, the Fairfax Choral Society has an “around the world” Christmas concert planned at National City. It’s at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25.

On Dec. 8, the Fessenden Ensemble, a chamber group of local top-level players, will give a $30 concert at 7:30 at the church. On Dec. 10, organist Eric Bowman plays the noon recital. The church has its annual “lessons and carols” service on the 12th at 11 a.m. At 3 that afternoon the Washington Sinfonietta and the National Cathedral School Guild Choir has a concert. Tickets are $20. On Dec. 17, organist Steven Kalnoske plays the Friday recital and will play his improvisations of Christmas carols. And on the 18th an 19th at 4 p.m., the Children’s Chorus of Washington has its concert. Miller will be playing and conducting at the church’s 7:30 p.m. Christmas Eve service.

Why so many outside groups?

“They really love to perform here because of the beauty of the acoustics,” Miller says. “It’s such a wonderful atmosphere in which to make music and it gives some of the outside groups a chance to play in the city.”

Hundreds of other church recitals will be offered throughout the region. Too many for this list to be all-inclusive, but here are some of the highlights.

On Sunday from 5 to 8 p.m. Alexandria’s Christ Church Episcopal has its fifth annual “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” that will feature adult and children’s choir under the direction of gay organist and choirmaster Jason Abel. Community leaders from Alexandria will read the lessons. The concert is free but an offering will be collected to support the music program at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School, a special needs school in Fairfax County that Abel says has a great program.

“Every fifth and sixth grader there participates in choral and instrumental music and that’s a rarity in this time,” Abel says. “The teachers at this school do amazing work on a shoestring budget so the offering will go to help purchase instruments, uniforms or other things the music department might need.”

A brass quintet will also play. One of the hymn arrangements is from openly gay composer Richard Webster. Bruce Neswick, also gay, composed one of the anthems. Doors open at 4:30 and a capacity crowd is expected. A reception will follow. Christmas Eve services are planned at noon, 3 p.m., 5:30, 8 and 10:30. There’s also a 10 a.m. service on Christmas. A children’s pageant will be presented on Dec. 19 at 5 p.m. The church is at 118 North Washington Street in Alexandria and is open and affirming to gays.

“A Renaissance Christmas” is Dec. 10-12 at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall by the Folger Consort with the Tallis Scholars. Visit www.folger.edu/consort for more information.

Handel’s “Messiah” is today, Saturday and Sunday at the National Cathedral with the Cathedral Choir, Baroque Orchestra, soloists and under the direction of conductor Michal McCarthy. Tickets range from $25 to $85. Visit www.nationalcathedral for details.

Church of the Holy City, another gay-welcoming congregation, has its “Christmas Art Concert” on Dec. 12 at 3:30 p.m. Admission is free. The church is at 1611 16th Street, N.W. Go to www.swedenborgcenter.org for details.

Washington has many gay-welcoming churches — too many to name, but a couple that also have music planned include Augustana Lutheran Church at 2100 New Hampshire Ave., N.W. and Foundry United Methodist Church at 1500 16th Street, N.W. Visit the churches online for details.

“Every denomination has their sort of extremes and there are some religious communities that are very ultra conservative no matter what, but Washington is remarkably open and very accepting of people from all walks of life,” Miller says. “There are so many people here from so many different parts of the world, that there’s really an overriding sense of openness and that’s certainly the case at National City.”

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Music & Concerts

Grammys: Queer women and their sisters took down the house

Taylor Swift won Album of the Year

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When the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, her answer was simple: Nine. She stated: “I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” RBG did not attend the Grammy’s last night, but her spirit sure did. Women, at long last, dominated, ruled and killed the night.

Cher, in song a decade ago, declared that “this is a woman’s world,” but there was little evidence that was true, Grammy, and entertainment awards, speaking. In 2018, the Grammys were heavily criticized for lack of female representation across all categories and organizers’ response was for women to “step up.”

Be careful what you wish for boys.

The biggest star of the 2024 Grammys was the collective power of women. They made history, they claimed legacy and they danced and lip sang to each other’s work. Standing victorious was Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, SZA (the most nominated person of the year), Lainey Wilson, Karol G, boygenius, Kylie Minogue and Victoria Monét. Oh, yes, and powerhouse Taylor Swift, the superstar from whom Fox News cowers in fear, made history to become the first performer of any gender to win four Best Album of the Year trophies.

In the throng of these powerful women stand a number of both LGBTQ advocates and queer identifying artists. Cyrus has identified as pansexual, SZA has said lesbian rumors “ain’t wrong,” Phoebe Bridgers (winner of four trophies during the night, most of any artist) is lesbian, Monét is bi and Eilish likes women but doesn’t want to talk about it. Plus, ask any queer person about Swift or Minogue and you are likely to get a love-gush.

Women power was not just owned by the lady award winners. There were the ladies and then there were the Legends. The first Legend to appear was a surprise. Country singer Luke Combs has a cross-generational hit this year with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” When originally released, the song was embraced as a lesbian anthem. When performing “Fast Car,” surprise, there was Chapman herself, singing the duet with Combs. The rendition was stunning, sentimental and historic.

Chapman, like many of the night’s female dignitaries, has not been public with her sexuality. Author Alice Walker has spoken of the two of them being lovers, however.

The legend among legends of the night, however, was the one and only Joni Mitchell. Not gay herself, she embodies the concept of an LGBTQ icon, and was accompanied by the very out Brandi Carlile on stage. On her website, Mitchell’s statement to the LGBTQ community reads, “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

Mitchell performed her longtime classic “Both Sides Now.” The emotion, insight and delivery from the now 80-year old artist, survivor of an aneurism, was nothing short of profound. (To fully appreciate the nuance time can bring, check out the YouTube video of a Swift lookalike Mitchell singing the same song to Mama Cass and Mary Travers in 1969.) In this latest rendition, Mitchell clearly had an impact on Meryl Streep who was sitting in the audience. Talk about the arc of female talent and power.

That arc extended from a today’s lady, Cyrus, to legend Celine Dion as well. Cyrus declared Dion as one of her icons and inspirations early in the evening. Dion appeared, graceful and looking healthy, to present the final, and historic, award of the night at the end of the show.

Legends did not even need to be living to have had an effect on the night. Tributes to Tina Turner and Sinead O’Conner by Oprah, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and Annie Lennox respectively, proved that not even death could stop these women. As Lennox has musically and famously put it, “Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

Even the content of performances by today’s legends-in-the-making spoke to feminine power. Eilish was honored for, and performed “What Was I Made For?,” a haunting and searching song that speaks to the soul of womanhood and redefinition in today’s fight for gender rights and expression, while Dua Lipa laid down the gauntlet for mind blowing performance with her rendition of “Houdini” at the top of the show, Cyrus asserted the power of her anthem “Flowers” and pretty much stole the show.

Cyrus had not performed the song on television before, and only three times publicly. She declared in her intro that she was thrilled over the business numbers the song garnered, but she refused to let them define her. As she sang the hit, she scolded the audience, “you guys act like you don’t know the words to this song.” Soon the woman power of the room was singing along with her, from Swift to Oprah.

They can buy themselves flowers from now on. They don’t need anyone else. Cyrus made that point with the mic drop to cap all mic drops, “And I just won my first Grammy!” she declared as she danced off stage.

Even the squirmiest moment of the night still did not diminish the light of women power, and in fact, underscored it. During his acceptance of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a bone to pick with the Grammy voters. He called out the irony that his wife Beyoncé had won more Grammys than any other human, but had never won the Best Album of the Year. Yeah, what’s with that?

But then, it brought additional context ultimately to the fact that the winner of the most Grammys individually … is a woman. And to the fact that the winner of the most Best Album of the Year awards … is a woman.

Hopefully this was the night that the Grammys “got it.” Women are the epicenter of The Creative Force.

Will the other entertainment awards get it soon as well? We can hope.

Most importantly, in a political world where women’s healthcare is under siege. Will the American voters get it?

A little known band named Little Mix put it this way in their 2019 song “A Woman’s World.”

“If you can’t see that it’s gotta change
Only want the body but not the brains
If you really think that’s the way it works
You ain’t lived in a woman’s world

Just look at how far that we’ve got
And don’t think that we’ll ever stop…”

From Grammy’s mouth to the world’s ear.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson returning to D.C, Baltimore

‘Together Again Tour’ comes to Capital One Arena, CFG Bank Arena

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Janet Jackson is coming back to D.C. this summer.

Pop icon Janet Jackson announced this week an extension of her 2023 “Together Again Tour.” A new leg of the tour will bring Jackson back to the area for two shows, one at D.C.’s Capital One Arena on Friday, July 12 and another at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on Saturday, July 13.  

Tickets are on sale now via TicketMaster. LiveNation announced the 2023 leg of the tour consisted of 36 shows, each of which was sold out. The 2024 leg has 35 stops planned so far; R&B star Nelly will open for Jackson on the new leg. 

Jackson made the tour announcement Tuesday on social media: “Hey u guys! By popular demand, we’re bringing the Together Again Tour back to North America this summer with special guest Nelly! It’ll be so much fun!”

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Music & Concerts

REVIEW: Madonna’s joyful, nostalgic, chaotic ‘Celebration’

Fans got into the groove at Capital One Arena for two unforgettable nights

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Madonna rocked D.C. this week.

The entire two-plus hours of Madonna’s “Celebration Tour” seemed to build to a singular ecstatic moment when the pop and queer icon glided above the packed floor of Capital One Arena in a lighted box belting out her 1998 hit “Ray of Light.”

You could feel the arena move beneath your feet.

It’s difficult to capture in words the spectacle, sheer joy, and even sadness that characterize Madonna’s “Celebration Tour,” which played D.C. on Monday and Tuesday nights featuring 28 songs in seven “acts.” Let’s get her tardiness out of the way: Yes, she was late. Very late. The 8:30 p.m. start time turned into 10:30, which, considering the advancing age of her fanbase, proved a challenge for many on a school night. But the moment she hit the stage, all was forgiven.

Bob the Drag Queen was a capable, entertaining emcee, opening the show with a short monologue of praise and inviting the glitter/sequin/feather-adorned crowd to the celebration. With that, Madonna appeared on the tiered stage (a nod to her 1984 MTV Video Music Awards debut atop a wedding cake) and opened the show with the unexpected “Nothing Really Matters,” a surprising choice for a “greatest hits” show given it peaked at 93 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart back in 1999 (though it did hit No. 1 on the dance chart that year). She wore a black kimono designed by Eyob Yohannes and a halo headpiece by House of Malakai, according to Harpers Bazaar. The look evoked her red kimono from the video. 

From there, old school fans were treated to an ‘80s throwback and a recreation of Danceteria featuring club hits like “Everybody,” “Into the Groove,” and “Burning Up.” 

The party anthem “Holiday” took a jarring turn as dancers were depicted dying on stage with Madonna using her coat to cover up one of them as the vibe quickly changed from intoxicating and fun to introspective and tearful as she transitioned to her 1986 ballad “Live to Tell.” In a show packed with highlights, this was the emotional core of the night. The song opened with two-story images of friends who had died of AIDS projected on giant screens around the stage; as the song progressed, the screens filled with more and more faces until the visages of hundreds of mostly gay men filled the arena with Madonna floating around them singing in tribute. It was a haunting moment and the most visually stunning sight I have ever witnessed in a concert. There wasn’t a dry eye in our row and I haven’t been able to get that image out of my mind for two days, a painful reminder of our community’s recent history and Madonna’s role as one of the few celebrities who stood with us in our darkest hour. She has more than earned our loyalty after fighting for AIDS awareness and funding and standing up to everyone from the Pope to the Boy Scouts advocating for our basic humanity. 

After the emotional pull of that number, we needed some levity and Madonna delivered by pivoting to “Like a Prayer” featuring a giant carousel filled with her mostly shirtless dancers and a minute of chanting and a Sam Smith-Kim Petras “Unholy” snippet followed by a raucous version of the smash hit song.

Moving into act three, “Erotica” arrived with the dancers dressed as boxers in a ring with laser lights instead of ropes. There was an interlude featuring a dancer dressed as a Blond Ambition-era Madonna on a red velvet bed, another nod to an iconic Madonna moment, followed by “Justify My Love” with the scantily clad dancers writhing around their queen. 

One of my personal highlights followed as Madonna’s daughter Mercy James killed it, skillfully playing piano as her mother sang “Bad Girl,” another surprise setlist inclusion from 1992’s “Erotica” album. Though the single didn’t fare well on the charts, the David Fincher-directed video remains one of her absolute best, depicting Madonna as a Manhattan business executive who drinks and smokes excessively and embarks on a series of one-night stands that leads to her murder. Christopher Walken co-stars in the video, which was influenced by Wim Wenders’s acclaimed “Wings of Desire.” Mercy is clearly no nepo-baby; she’s a talented pianist who wowed the crowd. 

Next up was “Vogue,” which saw Madonna strutting the runway in a Jean Paul Gaultier-designed little black dress complete with conical bra and ending with a tribute to the ‘80s ballroom scene with Bob the Drag Queen in the role of Billy Porter from “Pose.” 

Act V commenced with a rather drawn out recording of “The Beast Within,” the 1990 track that features spoken word passages from the Book of Revelation. She’s included this one on several tours. It wasn’t a hit song and we’ve seen it multiple times before so it felt unnecessary.  

“Don’t Tell Me” saw the return of cowboy hats and line dancing, a spirited highlight of the night. Shortly after, Madonna slowed things down with a moody cover of “I Will Survive,” a poignant moment given her recent bout with a serious bacterial infection that led to the tour’s postponement.

But she was saving the best for last, as Act VI debuted with Madonna in a glittering Versace catsuit sprawled on a box singing “Bedtime Story” before rising to the rafters and tackling the aforementioned “Ray of Light.” It was an electric rendition that had the thousands of attendees on their feet. 

So, what didn’t work? There were a few missteps, chief among them a misguided tribute to Michael Jackson at the end of the show that depicted silhouettes of Michael and Madonna dancing to “Billie Jean” and “Like a Virgin.” The comparison screamed “He’s the King of Pop and I’m the Queen” — it felt thirsty and superfluous. The whole “Queen of Pop” debate smacks of 20th century sexism, especially in an era of Taylor Swift and Beyonce billion-dollar tours. Madonna should be over that by now. Further undermining the comparison, Michael Jackson detested Madonna and was caught on an audio recording calling her a “nasty witch” and accusing her of being “jealous” of his popularity. She should cut this segment from the show.

One friend described the show as “chaotic,” which it was at times, but that stems from trying to cram a 40-year catalogue of hit songs into a two-hour show. Some of the show’s transitions were abrupt but, again, when you have as many hits as she does, you have to move fast.

Another issue was the lack of a live band, which she’s included on previous tours. I think most concert-goers paying hundreds of dollars for a ticket expect to see and hear a band. Instead, she relied on a recorded track for the music and some of the vocals. But Madonna’s mic was live and she did sing most of the show. As for the dance moves, Madonna has certainly slowed down from previous tours; her dancing isn’t nearly as athletic as in tours past. But she’s 65 years old and the leg brace she’s worn on stage clearly shows she’s suffering from so many years of entertaining us in high heels. She can leave the moves to her coterie of dancers and focus on singing. 

She closed the show abruptly with a combo of “Bitch I’m Madonna” and a truncated “Celebration,” the tour’s namesake.

In all, a festive and nostalgic night with Madonna serving up hits and memories spanning decades for her adoring fans dressed in all sorts of tribute attire. If you’re on the fence about going, let me push you off. Go see her before she retires from touring. Yes, you’ll have to stay up late and indulge a few misguided moments. But our icons are aging and dying and no one can fill Madonna’s shoes. The show is a party, a walk down memory lane, and, yes, a Celebration.

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