Classical music is funny when it comes to LGBT stuff — on one hand, it’s no big deal. Nobody cares if the talent is there. Yet sometimes it’s taken to such an absurd degree that it feels disingenuous. Or the artists sometimes feel talking about their personal lives will cheapen their art or dilute its impact in an arena where it’s not supposed to matter.
All that to say — comb through the classical spring concerts coming up and there’s very few LGBT themes or personnel to point to. And yet many folks active in that world say our regional orchestras, opera companies and choirs are just as healthily outfitted with gays as the rest of the city. Maybe not quite as high in number as, say, the uber-queer D.C. theater community, but not off by much. It’s anecdotal so yeah, take it with a grain of salt, but that’s what you go by when there are no hard numbers available.
The gayest classical concert this season by far comes from an unlikely source — our Gay Men’s Chorus. While their musical chops have never been questioned — they’re enjoying a rich new era under the direction of Artistic Director Thea Kano — the fact that they do so much Broadway, camp, music-with-a-message, pop covers, you name it really, folks who love the classical canon around here tend to gravitate to local choirs (and there are many) that stick to the traditional repertoire.
It’s even a “thing” in the chorus. Kano, with a chuckle, refers to the “SMQs” (i.e. “serious music queens”) in the massive choir. Those SMQs, she says, were giddy with delight when she told them one of their 2018 concerts was a new tenor/bass arrangement of Maurice Durufle’s “Requiem.” The Chorus performs it this weekend (Saturday, March 3) at 8 p.m. at the Church of the Epiphany (1317 G St., N.W.). Tickets are $60. Full details at gmcw.org.
Kano, as big an ally as it gets, was in her third year of graduate school at UCLA in 2003 working on an advanced conducting degree when she first became aware of the famous “Requiem,” or “Mass for the dead.” She and her mentoring professor were considering ideas for what she might do her dissertation on and he suggested the “Requiem.”
“He said the Durufle ‘Requiem’ and I was like, ‘The who, the what?,’” Kano says. “He said, ’Shame on you,’ and sent me home with a bunch of CDs. I put the first one in and was just moved to tears. There’s something just glorious about it.”
It did become her dissertation piece and longtime chorus accompanist Teddy Guerrant suggested she adapt it for tenor-and-bass chorus.
“He actually kept bugging me about it over the years,” Kano says.
She had contacts with the Durufle Association (the composer, who was straight, died in 1986; the “Requiem” premiered in 1947) and went to Paris last summer to do the work of actually transcribing the nine-movement, about 40-minute piece, a process she says was, yes, tedious at times, but a process akin to working on a crossword puzzle that she came to love.
Composed for soprano-alto-tenor-bass (SATB) chorus with occasional divisi, Kano adapted it for tenor 1, tenor 2, baritone and bass (TTBB) a process that in many cases was as simple as taking the soprano and alto parts down an octave, although that wasn’t feasible in all places. It’s in the same key as the original; the same orchestral and organ accompaniments Durufle wrote are being used. Soprano Breanna Sinclaire (a trans Baltimore native who’s making a name for herself as an opera soloist) will perform the fifth movement, “Pie Jesu.”
“There are some passages where the sopranos (in the original) have the melody and they’re up in the rafters but now it’s been assigned to the baritones and it’s … kind of more smushed in there so we had to really bring the other sections’ volumes down and bring the other up to make sure it’s voiced so that what is prominent stands out to the ear of the audience,” Kano says. “The first few times I heard it live in the TTBB, I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds like Durufle but different.’ We’ve been working on it about seven or eight weeks and I think it’s just glorious. The audience is in for a real treat.”
Kano was delighted that about 140 of the chorus’s 300 (give or take) members signed on for the concert (they’re not required to). She was concerned some members who enjoy the more camp/pop stuff might not be up for such a major work from the classical canon, although the chorus has in previous years done adaptations of major works such as the Faure “Requiem” and “Carmina Burana.”
Because the “Requiem” was written in a style based on Gregorian plainchant (traditionally sung by male singers), the TTBB version required no great musicological backflips. And Kano says the majesty of the piece transcends its Christian text. If it seems an odd choice for the chorus, which specializes in more rah-rah-gay-type contemporary repertoire (although they’ve always done classical works as well), Kano says it’s its own statement of equality.
“Just the fact that we’re out as an LGBT chorus standing there and singing anything, you know, the stereotype of what the classical snobby choruses can do, just shows that we can raise our voices any way we feel is appropriate for our abilities. It puts us on the map that yes, we can sing anything and hopefully the audience will agree.”
Chorus member Tim Gillham, a tenor who joined the group in 2014, had previously sung the “Requiem” in the traditional voicing and said it’s been “truly a joy” to rediscover it in Kano’s version.
“Thea’s treatment brings an added depth and warmth to the work, which is especially appropriate for a ‘Requiem,’” he says.
“It’s been a total treat to have Thea work us through the music sections and share and feel her true passion for the music,” says Ed Oseroff, a bass who’s been with the Chorus since 2000. “I hope the audience will sit back, relax and let the emotion and power of the music take them away.”
As usual, it’s a busy spring for the Chorus. Its “Make America Gay Again” concert is Saturday, March 17; small ensembles’ “Extravaganza” is Saturday, April 14 at the Barns at Wolf Trap and “Transamerica,” a show about trans issues that will also feature Sinclaire, is June 2-3. Full details at gmcw.org.