The NYC GAY MEN'S CHORUS - "A Great Generation"
Live in Concert at Avery Fisher Hall, NYC - March 8, 2004
A concert, in two parts, honoring the older generation of gay men.
PART ONE - "THE SAGE CYCLE"
(lyrics by Joan Lipkin, music by Eric Lane Barnes)
(Per the program notes) - "This song cycle celebrates the lives of those gay men whose generation shaped their lives and dreams without the benefit of the Stonewall Revolution, and the succeeding generation, the "baby boomers" who helped shape the future for the generation that now follows in its path".
Upon my early arrival at the Avery Fisher Hall I was pleased to find the lyrics to the newly commissioned "The Sage Cycle" included in the program. I had been wondering all week how well a female lyricist could capture the mindsets of gay men who'd reached their elder years. What a tale to have to tell! It seemed an impossible task.
But I was immediately moved by the insightful treatment conjured up by lyricist Joan Lipkin. Reading her lyrics without the music, one could enjoy the poetry within, and more so, the poetry within the lives of the gay men she wrote of. In just eight songs her penetrating scenarios of mature gay male reflections brought forth dimensions of comedy, tragedy, pathos, anger, honor, and more. My imagination exploded as I sensed the potential for extremely powerful & far reaching music to encompass the two full generations of gay men who endured through both the pre and post StoneWall era of the 20th Century.
Lipkin writes in a sparse, simple style wherein a few words can mean a whole universe. Consider for example, this one revealing line from The Sage Cycle's song #3 MARRIED MEN - "She carried the bouquet, but I wore the veil." Or this gem from song #2 LOOK AT ME - "They say old age ain't for sissies. Just ask a tough old queen." Kinda says it all, don't it....
I was less impressed with The Sage Cycle's musical score by Eric Lane Barnes. To his credit, Barnes writes capably for male chorus in a clear, accessible, easy-listening style. But his composing in this piece seems limited to a kind of 1980s-to-the-present light “classical” b'way pop - not the best choice to accompany the profound trials of gay men who grew up as far back as World War II. I found the music too emotionally & intellectually mild, perhaps even too municipal sounding, to capture the depth of either Ms. Lipkin's lyrics or the powerful human history being told of in The Sage Cycle.
Barnes fared best with his cycle's last song #8 TWILIGHT, sung beautifully and given down-home, old time verisimilitude by soloist BENJAMIN SMITH. A song sung from the perspective of an aging man of color, this slow 6/8 blues with an lifting uptempo gospel/spiritual finale sounded like something real.
One thing we can say for the pre-stonewall generation - they may have not yet had our modern feedoms, but they sure had great music - which leads us to part two of the evening...
PART TWO (per the program notes)... "Devoted to songs our more elder brothers grew up with during their formative years, the same songs that inspired and entertained the parents of the Baby Boomer generation."
This fun part of the evening was made up of mostly World War II era classics by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Ellington, etc. In between songs the audience was treated to light-hearted man-to-man dance routines executed by members of the chorus. Sometimes dressed as WWII GIs jiving to “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy”; sometimes in Astaire-type tails tangoing to “Begin the Beguine” - these chorus boyz were havin' a ball. During the dance numbers the stage "swing band" (which included members of The Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps) played mightily. Special kudos to bassist Jason DiMatteo and drummer Dan Gross – who together held the big band music together.Anyone in the house could easily sense how beloved these vintage war-horses are for both the gay chorus and the audience. (and what's not to like?!?!) The song arrangements were pretty straightforward and easy enough for all to hum along. Highlights included tenor soloist Matt Leahy's ringing rendition of Sammy Fain's "I'll Be Seeing You"; and soloist Gary Austin Graves lovely use of falsetto in Gershwin's "The Man I Love".
Interestingly, the finest musical moment of the entire evening was the encore. In a tribute to the current gay marriage movement, the chorus sang "Marry Us" from the Naked Man Song Cycle. It was magnificent. Up to this point in the evening, the program had not put too many vocal demands on the chorus. (most of the swing band era chestnuts were naturally crooners; there was a lot of unision singing, and The Sage Cycle was vocally light-weight) But here were rich modern harmonies and those wondrous clarion tenors finally using their full voices. Both chorus and musicians seemed to burst forth with thick sonorous power. Bravo!! Audience members on either side of me were teary-eyed. What a fine piece of choral music.
In sum, conductor Jeffrey Maynard led the NYC Gay Men's Chorus and musicians ably & artfully throughout the evening. The chorus men themselves delivered on all that was asked of them, and then some. Special salute to sign language interpreter Tom McGillis, whose marvelous facial expressions alone spoke volumes! The man almost doesn't need his hands.
And finally, any event that devotes itself to honoring the often marginalized population of gay seniors, especially in a society that tends to cut off its elders, is most appreciated. Congratulations to all involved. – Robert Urban
Music and Arts reviews by Robert Urban
URBAN PRODUCTIONS, NYC
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