Los Angeles Music Review: I RISE (Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles at Disney Hall)

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by Tony Frankel on July 14, 2017

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


I Rise was more than a concert. As shaped by artistic director and conductor Dr. Joseph P. Nadeau (below) it was a theatrical experience so provocative, so plaintive, so poignant, so palpable, so powerful and so profound that it devastated me. And when that happens in the arts, I’m inspired. Sadly, there were only two performances on one day, but for the lucky ones in attendance, this Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles’s Season 38 Summer Concert will live on forever—it was one of their best programs in decades. (The event was also streamed live on Periscope (just click the play button); almost 150,000 viewers around the world so far).

Regardless of the strides the gay community has made in today’s world, religion is still the greatest force of division between supporters and detractors of gay rights. It’s a complicated, far-reaching subject matter for a choral concert, but the resounding message viewers came away with on July 8 at Disney Hall was this: Anyone can rise above the hate and intolerance fostered by the deep-rooted beliefs instigated by organized religion. (Executive Director Jonathan Weedman [photo below] wittily noted that the Gay Men’s Chorus is doing a program centered on religion, and it’s the hottest day in L.A. history.)

Yet this wasn’t an attack on religion. Indeed, for 135 minutes, it was a thoughtful exploration brilliantly incorporating storytelling and multimedia with music that actually had me see the benefits of spirituality and religious practice. There was also a strong sense that there could one day be a compromise between LGBT advocates and religious traditionalists.

GMCLA has never shied away from serious pieces, but in the past few years the silly often surpassed the sensitive. I have nothing against frou-frou and the celebration of fabulousness, but showy ornamentation and stage business has often overtaken the fact that this is a world-class chorus. Not this time. There was sensitivity in each of the 23 selections, which ranged from hymn and gospel to pop and folk, and also included arrangements of singer/songwriters Katy Perry (born to Pentacostal pastors) and Holly Near, a feminist whose songs were chanted during the early years of the gay liberation movement.

Given that, the chorus—whose members represent over 25 religious affiliations—began with show tunes. Yet the juxtaposition of soloist Bill Bowerstock’s gorgeously straightforward “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and a brutal collection of clips from demonstrations, rallies, bible schools, sermons, and news stories was an instant blow to the solar plexus (montage by Andrew Mellen). As the footage of worldwide street fights and clashing people continued, the chorus segued into Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen,” angelically arranged by David Maddux, and aided by Cassie Nickols’ tender, eloquent piano playing. Two standout images during this segment were of small boys: one dancing at a gay pride parade and another holding a sign that read, “God Hates Fags.” (The only other show tune was “Somewhere,” sung by soprano Breanna Sinclairé [below], the first trans woman to sing the National Anthem at a sporting event.)

Then chorus member Michael Johnson related an affirming tale of his experience being welcomed into a position as director of a Lutheran youth ministry, even though he was out of the closet. This was followed by “How Can I Keep from Singing,” an 1868 Christian hymn adopted by Quakers, which became well-known after Pete Seeger recorded it; Scott Farthing’s haunting and uplifting arrangement set the tone for an emotional first act.

Next came Andy Bender, who spoke of the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, in which you repent for your sins. After coming out (and the hand-wringing and guilt trips from family that that implies), he said to himself during the fasting period, “You may have things to repent, but being gay isn’t one of them.” One of the prayers for forgiveness is “Avinu Malkeinu” (translated as “Our Father, Our King”) and Dr. Nadeau’s arrangement of Max Janowsky’s intimate, majestic version was rendered almost unbearably bittersweet by soloist Kevin Mirsepassi’s sweet, clear, chant-like quality on the already emotionally charged vocal lines.

On it went: Darren Holmann told of being disowned by his Mormon family, after which his chosen family, the chorus, sang a joyous “Nearer My God to Thee”; and Steve Pieters found consolation and healing in Christianity (“Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace”) after being diagnosed with AIDS. The stories of Justin Estoque—who discovered that a mother’s silence could mean acceptance—and Brandon Petross-Oliver—whose Grandma came to terms with gay marriage by using humor—were elucidated by the tender “In My Mother’s Eyes”; Kleenex flowing freely afterwards testified to the sweet affection in the hall.

Neil Vyas’s story—which reminded us that the Hindu religion doesn’t forbid homosexuality, the culture does—was contextualized by Victor Paranjoti’s complicated “Dravidian Dithyramb,” which Paranjoti himself refers to as a work of typical Indian melodic motifs with a wild range of tonal and dynamic values that demands the highest precision of rhythm. With this number, GMCLA sounded just as spectacular as the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The most astounding and emotional story came from Gary Hayashi (above), whose staunch religious upbringing had him working for seven years with an ex-gay ministry as a speaker, even knowing he was gay. His revelation came in church looking for an encounter with the love of God. He realized that he just wanted to know a great love—and he found it being in a community chorus. His articulate delivery detailing how the God in him meets weekly with the God in others brought down the house.

The first half was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in the theater, so there was gratitude that Nadeau wisely made Act II less acute (eliminating the storytelling helped). Media came in the form of Bernie Espinosa, Will Kohlschreiber, and Art Director Matthew Alexander’s astounding drone footage of religious institutions and symbols high above the L.A. cityscapes—a perfect backdrop for the Los Angeles premiere of composer Ola Gjeilo’s ethereal, floating “Sanctuary,” with lyrics by Charles Anthony Silvestri, that invites us to find peaceful sanctuary in a bustling metropolis. I could live inside this song.

Associate conductor Gavin Thrasher led 15 members of Aftershock (above), GMCLA’s a capella group, in Susan Werner’s awesome “May I Suggest,” made famous by Red Molly; it’s a glorious hymn suggesting that wherever you are is the best part of your life. And listening to these guys at that moment was certainly the best moment of my life.

Sitting behind the chorus were more than 27 faith- and community-based groups, forming a “mega-chorus.” Just as amazing as the amount of singers is that we understood every lyric in the spiritual “City Called Heaven,” which soloist Donald Giddings sang with unaffected, unadorned perfection (sound design, Darren Mora). The nearly 500 singers (including L.A.’s own VOX Femina and Selah Gospel Choir, both of which performed their own number), brought home with perfection Pakk Hui’s righteous arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s glorious “Hallelujah.” The anthemic world premiere “Shine, Boldly Shine” was a little too on-the-nose for me, coming off like a ’70’s Coca-Cola commercial, but it certainly roused the audience. Ms. Near was in the house, looking great at 68, and utilized the choruses and the audience in her “I Am Willing” at show’s end, sumptuously lit by Steven Young.

We live on a planet whose interior is made of molten metal, hurling through an expanding universe at an astounding speed. Shit’s gonna happen. For many reasons, humankind needs to explain our world and our behavior, and religion does just that. It can keep humanity in check, but it can also be used as a controlling tool to support prejudice, hatred, and indifference.

This concert was such an important and awesome event, as it elucidated the double-edged sword of religion. It seems that the next phase of humanity will be about building bridges across the chasms of misunderstanding: at this juncture, it’s not just the healthy existence of gay folk which is at stake—it’s the earth’s health, too (brought to light in Ms. Near’s a capella performance of her “Planet Called Home”). Do not despair, this holy concert told me. “Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.”

photos by Gregory Zabilski (click on images for larger pictures)

I Rise
Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
played Saturday, July 8, 2017 at 2 and 8
for future concerts, call 424.239.6514 or visit GMCLA


Jan Mueller July 18, 2017 at 6:01 pm

You have captured the essence of the I Rise concert most eloquently. How do we get those people who really need to understand LGBT conceptual framework, to hear concerts such as this and read your review? Thank you
Jan Mueller

Brian July 19, 2017 at 10:54 am

Jan, “those people” are your neighbors and the next generation. Nothing works better than consistently coming out face-to-face.

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