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Singing for Harmony’s Sake.

November 16, 2011

Text by Lauren Gordon. Images by Rick Kauffman.

The lobby of the Ritz-Carlton is buzzing with activity. Businessmen and women convene for happy hour cocktails. Groups of women wearing identical bandanas (tourists, most likely) exchange itineraries. And several conventioneers network on this busy Wednesday.

It is 6:29 p.m. and the unsuspecting guests in the opulent room are being served hors d’oeuvres by men in sailor hats and tribal headdresses. Then, there is a low hum, the sound of a familiar disco tune wafting through the decadent halls.

The servers line up – around 30 men in white shirts and blue jeans, and begin singing a Village People medley accompanied by choreographed dance moves complete with jazz hands and macho-man poses.

This flash mob is one of the more kitschy performances the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) has done over the past 30 years, and only a sliver of what they have accomplished over the years.

Founded by Gerald David in 1981, the original four members began by caroling in bars. Quickly their respectability grew. Their first formal concert occurred on April 25, 1982. Not only have their numbers steadily grown – they now have 130 members – they have since added a non-profit sector to their organization and they boast a popular, annual holiday concert. But they are more than just a talented group. They are a support system for the gay community.

“It was an important part of accepting my sexual identity,” reflects President Greg Weight on joining as a chorus member in 1997. “It was so important to see the diversity of men who accepted themselves.”

In the Lutheran Church located at 20th and Sansom streets, it is evident that Weight’s statement rings true today. The mood is entirely different from their flash mob performance barely one hour ago. A more focused sea of men sit according to their positions in the ensemble – from the basses to the altos. They range from their early 20s to their late 60s. Whites, Asians, African Americans, Middle Eastern men and more, hailing from different creeds and a plethora of various musical backgrounds, begin singing beloved Christmas carols.

Joe Buches, the artistic director and conductor, leads rehearsal.

“Its ‘candle’ not ‘can-dellllll,’” he remarks, playfully mocking the group’s heavy Philadelphian accent.

To the melodic lilt of the piano, his hands prod and pluck the air as if pulling the appropriate notes from the group’s diaphragms. A chill-inducing sound rises from the choir, a calming harmony in the cloak of a familiar carol fills the air.

Buches, who is the only paid employee in the chorus, has watched his men evolve and grow under his direction. He’s also witnessed an evolution in community activism.

“We make appearances at everything we can,” Buches comments. “It is important for people to know we are out there.”

The PGMC creates a community united around music. Their vision has outreach beyond the gay community. They’ve visited local high schools and traveled across the country to spread their message of acceptance and hope, trying  to dispel negative attitudes that surround homosexuality.

“It is an extremely powerful thing for high school students to see a large, diverse group of proud homosexual men together,” affirms Weight.

The PGMC isn’t just trying to make strides outside of the gay community, it is working to bring unity back into it.

“You don’t have to be gay or even a man to join the chorus,” clarifies Weight. “That is not what this is about.”

Most members claim that they originally joined the chorus to meet others in the gay community. Though there are a myriad of pride events, gay bars and awareness groups, it can be hard to meet people when you aren’t entirely ready to be immersed in that aspect of the community. PGMC often serves a platform for gay men to get involved but still live their lives in a “safe environment.”

“The attitude in the chorus has changed dramatically to a family mentality,” Buches remarks. “We have a strong network here.”

There is such a comfort level that some of the singers have used the chorus as a way to come out, Weight says, inviting their loved ones to see them in a show. The chorus has the ability to bridge many communities and subsets, Buches and Weight believe.

“We have so many different groups in Philly,” Weight says. “We have the dancers, the artists, the musicians – all key players in the gay community. But people tend to stay in their own cliques. We really want to bridge that gap between those sectors because we are all hoping for the same things.”

At the end of the day, it always comes back to the music. There are three auditions held every year, though many members do not have formal musical training.  Each potential member is expected to have raw talent. Buches ensures he can help with the rest.

“Not everyone knows how to read music and that is ok,” he explains. “I am here to guide. Overall we just want a perfected, untouchable sound.”

While they do infuse contemporary tunes with timeless classics, their overall style is that of a polished, sophisticated sound. For their official 30th anniversary celebration next June, they are performing the world premiere of a composition by Collaborative Accompanist Michael Djupstrom and a libretto by PGMC member Chip Alfred.

“To be together for 30 years, functioning as a unit, is a remarkable feat itself,” Weight proudly states. “I am confident this is just a marker of greater things to come.”

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