Saturday, June 23, 2012

A journey to a beach with Stan Hill and his chorus of gay men

Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Acts of creation are acts of faith. This is what gives the arts their intrinsic value. Some of us are called to create human life. All of us are called to live life daily."

I penned those words in New Orleans in 2006, at the end of a week-long performing tour of four Southern states by members of the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus. Traveling in a caravan of three chartered buses – from Nashville to Birmingham, to Jackson, to Mobile, and to New Orleans – 130 people experienced "eight days of collective worship, of living life daily."

Dr. Stan Hill • Photo: Paul Nixdorf
Watching Dr. Stan Hill conduct the TCGMC at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis last evening called to mind memories of that week and of other occasions with Hill and members of the Chorus. Rob Hubbard's review for the Pioneer Press this morning is a 'keeper.' 

Hill served as the artistic and spiritual leader of the Southern tour, as he has of the TCGMC for the past 12 years, and as he did for the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus for 11 years prior to that.

Following this weekend's performances in Minneapolis and next month's in Denver, Hill will retire to his native California. This personal ending and new beginning of his journey shares a certain circularity with those of the chorus and community from which he takes his leave.

When the Twin Cities Men's Chorus formed in 1981 (the word "Gay" was added in 1991), I was working as a legal assistant for a Minneapolis law firm, and was the sole closeted gay man operating in a very straight milieu in a very straight civic culture. Many of us, on whom its existence registered at all, viewed the Chorus as a novelty, as one more way for gay men to act flamboyantly flashy and fabulous, including cruising past us in their hired limo as we left the bars on Hennepin Avenue. 

However, as closet doors opened throughout the community, familiarity and friendships formed. One example was the potluck gathering of friends at my West Bank apartment on Christmas Day in 1982, when a Chorus member, the late John Bisciglia, and his partner joined us for great food and provocative conversation.

With plodding and sometimes painful steps, the Chorus worked, wormed, and wove its way into our brains and hearts, getting inside our skins with its songs about our lives as gay men and as general human beings. In part, they did it by showing up and always standing present for our activities and events.

They stood present in Loring Park on a night in 1985 or 1986 for a rally against the violence and muggings that regularly visited gay men in the park in those days. As co-host of Fresh Fruit, the weekly gay radio program on KFAI FM, I recorded them singing their signature anthem "Walk Hand In Hand" that night; it probably was the first time the song was broadcast on the airwaves. 

In 1986, my partner, James Davies, presented a Fresh Fruit feature on the art songs of the composer Ned Rorem, who performed with the Chorus at the (then) Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul. (Davies joined the TCGMC as a singing member in 2005.)

Fast forward to the spring of 1999 when I was working as executive director of the James Sewell Ballet. The Chorus' artistic director, Craig Carnahan, came by our office at the Minnesota Opera Center to outline a project involving chorus and dance for the following season. Exigencies of our finances and planning structure at the time precluded participation. Four years later, when Stan Hill came by, we were able to sign on for "Metamorphosis," the epic commissioning project that debuted on TCGMC's Ted Mann season in March 2004. 

Almost immediately after saying 'yes' to Hill, however, JSB was invited to present its first week of performances at New York's Joyce Theater in the winter of 2004. Those engagements, plus a  choreographic commission from the Wharton Center at Michigan State University, also in March 2004, meant we would be short of time and money to create a new ballet for our own St. Paul ballet season in April 2004.

Our solution was to invite the TCGMC to perform "Metamorphosis" with us as half of our April program. We were wary if it would work because members of the Chorus would have to commit extra rehearsal time and two weekends of performances as volunteers. In the event, more than 100 men agreed to sing with us. Later that summer, our dancers accompanied the singers to Montreal to present "Metamorphosis" for the quadrennial GALA Choruses Festival. 

In 2006, when partners of Chorus members were invited to join the Southern tour as groupies, it was a no-brainer that I would be a boy on a bus. Similarly, when Hill and the TCGMC premiered "Through a Glass, Darkly" for the GALA Choruses in 2008, I flew with the flock to Miami for a week's worth of music. 

These and shorter trips to Duluth and Bemidji, Minnesota, and Ashland, Wisconsin, have provided an opportunity to view Hill as the consummate showman and heartfelt evangelist that he is. He frequently poses the question "If we don't tell our stories, who will?"

The circular completion of one of my own stories involves the current vice chair of the TCGMC board of directors. A somewhat-younger-than-me Jeffrey Bores is a current partner in the law firm where I worked in 1981, and some of my colleagues from those days now attend Chorus performances and galas. 

As the song goes, "Love is rare, life is strange; Nothing lasts, people change." 

Hill's inspiration and insistence that one particular story be told provides additional proof of that. The story led to one of my half dozen, life-changing experiences. It took place during the Southern tour on Thursday, July 13, 2006, when three buses stopped next to the Gulf of Mexico
They formed a tight circle on the white beach sands of Biloxi, Mississippi. In the center stood Richard Long, 61, and words written for the occasion by a black woman in Minneapolis were read. 
They formed-up in two facing columns, two-deep, perpendicular to the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. 
Between the columns, they unrolled a white fabric runner leading to the water. 
As Richard was led through the columns, they joined hands and sang their signature, "Walk hand in hand with me." 
Stepping into the Gulf of Mexico, Richard was surrounded by more than 100 brothers singing, "We shall overcome." 
No dry eyes on Biloxi's waterfront. 
Several of those present were not born in 1965 when Richard was stationed nearby at the Keesler Air Force Base. Black people were not welcome on the Gulf beaches in those days. The power of the federal government, represented by 17,000 soldiers, was no match for the power of attitude in Biloxi, Mississippi. 
"An afternoon on a beach in Biloxi" • July 13, 2006
A reporter-with-camera from the local newspaper was present to record the scene, as were the archival cameras hired by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus to follow their tour of four Southern states.

Before we left New Orleans a couple days later, Hill observed that all of those who had gathered for the tour would probably never again be present at the same time and place. He expressed his hope that whatever became of us in life we might, on occasion, recall an afternoon on a beach in Biloxi.

So we shall, Stan. That journey and so much more.

1 comment:

rileoninmn said...

I have never forgotten that day and I shall never forget how good you all made me feel. LIFE-CHANGING!