SWGMC are back from our summer break and already gearing up for our next concert (17 October, since you ask), but rather than spending all of our time looking forwards we thought we’d take this opportunity to look back at how the choir have spent 2015 so far. So here our bass section leader, Stephen Whitehead, talks us through his highlights of SWGMC 2015:
I’ve been asked to write about what it’s like to sing with SWGMC, in particular in those performances which are not principally ours but where we are invited to perform by others, sometimes for the first time. And events in 2015 have provided the ideal opportunity to do just that. Here goes.
By January 2015, South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus’ programme for the year was set, and included dates for our own Cardiff concerts in June and October, plus a visit to Cornwall in May. The first music for our June ‘Brotherhood’ themed concert had been sent, downloaded and printed ready for learning. Then three invitations, out of the blue and hot off the e-mail press, meant that our public performances would begin earlier than planned. Each would be a ‘first’ and would, in its own way, prove to be truly memorable.
In February we were approached by National Theatre Wales. Would we be able to sing in the Sherman Theatre at the press night of Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, a new play which told the story of the career and ‘coming-out’, and resulting media sensation, of Welsh International Rugby player Gareth Thomas. Since he came-out Gareth has become an active campaigner against homophobia in sport, working especially with young people.
A couple of years ago the media reported a number of suicides amongst young people in Bridgend which had a devastating effect on the community, and through a thought-provoking balance of humour, drama and sport, the play skilfully interwove Gareth’s story with that of Bridgend and those suicides.
It showed not only how far we have come as society with regards to LGBT equality as a whole but also, in some respects, how far we have yet to go. It’s a sobering thought that for some in our audiences, these performances may be the only time they knowingly come into contact with openly gay people. The choir foregathered in the bar post curtain where, with a suitably chosen programme and against a percussive accompaniment of tinkling glasses, we entertained an appreciative audience. At times music becomes the way by which we can build bridges.
In March we received another invitation, this time from Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre. Would we be able to sing at a special screening of ‘PRIDE’ at the Big Pit Mining Museum? The award-winning film charts the events of 1984/85 when a group from London, LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners), spearheaded a nationwide campaign to financially support striking miners through voluntary collections. Initially they focussed on Onllwyn in South Wales, and thanks to their efforts the two disparate communities became united in a way that was unprecedented. As most of us had seen the film, some more than once, and knowing how moving, inspiring and uplifting it is we also knew this performance would be extra special. Thankfully we sang our twenty five minute programme prior to the film’s screening, as it would have been difficult singing afterwards. As one of our members commented, ‘Will there ever be a time when we don’t cry at this film?’ The question was not necessarily rhetorical.
Subsequently we had the honour to join LGSM and Tredegar Town Band on June 27th at London Pride to commemorate this historic event in the campaign for LGBT equality.
Question: how do you squeeze eighteen choristers, a conductor, vocal coach, accompanist, keyboards, a presenter and all the usual studio equipment into one small BBC radio studio? The secret is to take it in turns to breathe, as we discovered when were asked by BBC Radio 2 to sing ‘live’ on the Jeremy Vine Show from BBC Llandaff in March.
Two numbers leading up to the main news on the hours of the programme? No problem. Would we be able to do something ‘extra’; how about a jingle for the programme? Certainly. You have one? Ah, you want us to invent one!? No problem! Three minutes to go, improvisation kicks in and with moments to spare we have a jingle, it is rehearsed, the BBC like it, and three minutes in we sing it ‘live’; to an anticipated audience of 7 million people. We have sung in concert halls, theatres, churches, even a bio dome at the Eden Project, but to an unseen audience of 7 million people! No pressure!
Those of you who were listening in may have recalled that rather challenging question Jeremy posed from his audience of “Why a gay choir?” – Mark Anderson told us all at the time very much “Why a gay choir?” in his blog.
Fast forward to July now (but not forgetting our Brotherhood concert in June, see previous blog post here). In 1471 there was some hostility in Tewkesbury when the Houses of Lancaster and York fought it out in the Wars of the Roses. Thankfully, when we arrived in 2015 all thoughts of hostility had abated, although the fact that the town was in the middle of a Medieval Festival was a vivid reminder of its past. As a choir we seem to thrive on challenges, and in this case this involved singing a selection of West End and Broadway Musical songs in a new venue (Tewkesbury Methodist Church), with a new orchestra (the brilliant Tewkesbury Camerata, who we’d never even met before) and under the baton of a new conductor, the accomplished maestro Mark Aitchison (who we had met before but not been regularly conducted by).
Tewkesbury Camerata are an orchestra who meet for the first time on the day of their concerts, rehearse in the afternoon and perform in the evening. We did exactly the same (after, it must be admitted, a piano rehearsal with Mark in Cardiff the Thursday before). Our previous experiences in Cornwall have proved that singing in Methodist Churches (Camborne, St Austell and now Tewkesbury) has a positive effect and this was no exception, as the capacity audience which was packed into the venue that night proved when, two and half hours later, they gave everyone participating that night a standing ovation. All performances are important – they are where we build bridges, establish new connections and invite audiences to share our world and love of music – but they are equally important in how we can raise awareness and funds to support our chosen charity. Of which, this year is Mind Cymru – our boys are running the Cardiff 10K Run in an effort to fundraise for Mind Cymru – Please help us reach our target of £800 for Team SWGMC
So far in 2015 we have received four invitations which have led to ‘firsts’ for us (and there are more to come at the time of writing, watch this space) and, as always, we have risen to the occasions. Singing is hard work, the ‘trick’ is to make it look, and sound, as if it’s not. It uses muscles you never knew you had, or had forgotten about. It involves intensive rehearsals, and any ‘deer in the headlight’ moments are combatted by an adrenalin rush. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun and with this choir it pays dividends on so many levels.
I’ve been singing for over fifty years, starting as a boy soprano, graduating through male alto and baritone to bass (by-passing tenor but not sure how), and over the years I’ve sung with some fantastic choirs, operatic societies and opera groups. I had the pleasure of joining South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus in 2009 and was invited to become bass section leader in 2012. From the moment we step out on stage to when we take our final bows, no matter what the venue or programme, singing with these guys is really special and there’s nowhere else, at that time, I’d rather be.
*** SWGMC says a huge thanks to Steven Whitehead on the blog he’s given us, recounting a very fruitful and enjoyable year we’ve all had! ***