Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018



Three world premieres for SF Gay Men's Chorus

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus at Davies Hall. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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From the first few notes, it's obvious that this isn't the usual choral work. Safeer el-Layl ("Ambassador of the Night"), written by gay Lebanese composer Ilyas Iliya, will be one of three world premieres at Making Our Dreams Come True: A Night of Glamour and Gaiety, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' Friday, May 16 spring concert at Davies Symphony Hall.

The chorus celebrates its 30th anniversary by embracing American history while also making music history. Among premieres will be the first-ever work sung by a gay-identified chorus in Arabic.

Iliya first saw the SFGMC on tour in 1981 when he lived in Dallas. Having moved from Beirut, Lebanon in 1976, he wasn't exactly out as gay, and had no idea he would end up composing music for a gay chorus.

"This big, powerful sound was the first time I'd ever heard a men's chorus in my life," said Iliya at a recent preview concert. "I've always remembered that experience." When he relayed his memory of the concert, one veteran chorus member even recalled that show.

Iliya has been composing for the past 15 years, mainly choral work, including for Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, as well as for choirs in the East Bay and New York. As to the historic significance of the chorus premiering his new work, "I've never heard an American chorus singing in Arabic, gay or otherwise," said Iliya, who clarified that the lyrics are written in a Lebanese colloquial Arabic.

Asked if he sees a political and cultural significance to the concert in light of current violent Middle East conflicts, Iliya said, "Absolutely. The fact that Americans are opening their mouths and saying anything in Arabic is already political. Trying to learn the language already puts them close to our hearts. You get closer to how a culture thinks when you learn a little bit of their language."

The song's lyrics focus on freedom and "breaking through constraints of gender, sexual orientation and class," said Iliya, "as well as physical boundaries of oppression of women and gays."

Such thematic specifics melted as the chorus performed an excerpt of this exceptional work, which moved from low bass tones to higher, ethereal melodies. "Some members of the chorus who've been singing for a long time said this was perhaps the hardest music they've ever sung."

Composer Ilyas Iliya. Photo: Courtesy Ilyas Iliya

For conductor Kathleen McGuire, conducting a work for two choirs in eight parts was simply another experience conducting orchestras. While such a serious work may not prove a favorite to ears unfamiliar with pentatonic scales, many of the chorus' other songs have a more traditional feel and, in some cases, a dash of frivolity.

Early-80s TV theme songs are included in the program's opener. Also on the lighter side, a comedic take on the gay and straight history of classical music comprises a new song by gay composer Eric Lane Barnes. Gay vs. Straight features excerpts of Wagner, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Copland, Sousa, Saint-Sa'ns, and Chopin, with lyrics that either "in" or "out" them.

Traditionalists have plenty to enjoy as well, particularly with David Conte's new work Love, with lyrics by Philip Littell. The two composed other historic SFGMC works, including Naked Man. Conte's Invocation and Dance, one of the earliest compositional responses to AIDS, is now considered a standard of American choral literature. Love is expressive in its structure, effusive in Littell's lyric themes of unconditional love, and rings with the idealistic emotion of a classic choral work.

Also on the bill is a four-movement 1943 work by Randall Thompson, The Testament of Freedom. Commissioned to honor the then-bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, the lyrics include excerpts from letters and essays by the founding father and third US president.

The concert will conclude with My Rising Up, a foot-stomping gospel finale written by Steve Schalchlin. The Community Women's Orchestra and SF Symphony conductor Vance Y. George are among the special guests.

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performs May 16, 8 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave. $20-$100.

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