Saturday night we attended the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Symphonic Band performing a concert at Symphony Space titled “Once Upon A Time … The Soundtrack to Our Story”, with music referencing and inspired by the history of the Gay Rights movement as well as individual stories presented first hand via representatives from The Generations Project. It was a moving, festive, musically rousing affair.
The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps is best known for their marching band, always a highlight at every year’s Pride March as well as many other public events. While the marching band is very reminiscent of your typical All American marching band, except that it is far more fabulous, the Symphonic Band has a repertoire that, while including typical marching band arrangements of popular tunes, also embraces classically symphonic music.
The Symphonic Band, conducted by symphonic director Henco Espag, is as large if not larger-than-your-typical symphony orchestra, but instead of a string section – which usually takes up the majority of individual players in a classical orchestra – here there are more woodwinds, more brass and more percussion. Specifically piccolos, flutes (over a dozen), oboes, english horns, bassoons; clarinets (about 20 “regular” clarinets, and then additionally:) E flat clarinets, alto clarinets, bass clarinets, contrabass clarinets; soprano saxophones, alto saxophones, tenor saxophones, baritone saxophones; trumpets (over a dozen), plus heaps of french horns, trombones, bass trombone (just the one), euphoniums, tubas, and finally nine percussionists and one guitar/electric bass player. Around 120 players.
So at their best it can make for a very rich and dynamic sound. And we got that aplenty Saturday.
Our affable Master of Ceremonies was Kyle Post, who announced he had just come from playing a six foot drag queen in a Broadway matinee performance of Kinky Boots. Kyle is also credited with being a “life coach who helps artists and creatives live out their dreams with wild authenticity”.
He gave a short preamble setting the scene for the Pre-Stonewall Gay Rights movement, and then the band played a “Hair” medley of Aquarius and “Let the Sunshine In”, after which Kyle announced he wished he’d been prepared to respond by returning to the microphone in nothing but a loin cloth and long haired wig.
The capacity audience surely would not have minded.
The epochal event of the Stonewall Riots was represented musically by a dramatic rendition of Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” from The Planets. I can only provide a traditional recording of the original arrangement, but imagine all string parts substituted by flutes and woodwinds, with extra heaps of added brass, all playing to the hilt, and you will get a sense of what I considered the highlight of an evening which had many.
Mars: The Bringer of War – Gustav Holst (The Planets)
Gay Life in the 1970’s was represented by “Amaparito Roca” (Jaime Texidor) and “Music for Lovers” (Bart Howard), with guest singer Alicia Hall Moran (who replaced Audra MacDonald in the Porgy and Bess tour; one could hear a clear similarity in vocal timbre).
The AIDS crisis occasioned the playing of Wataru Hokoyama’s “Echoes of Memories”, which allows me to share one of two rehearsal videos of pieces from the night’s program the Lesbian & Bay Big Apple Corps has posted on their YouTube channel. The performance on Saturday was even richer, crisper and more moving.
The first act closed with a joyous rendition of “It’s Raining Men” (Paul Jabara and Paul Schaeffer, yes, the Paul Schaeffer of Late Night fame). Alas, the arrangement was more serviceable than wildly exuberant. What would it have been like if “It’s Raining Men” had been arranged and performed on the level of Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War”? There’d have been another riot. A riot of fabulosity!
So for the nostalgic fun of, I’ll include recordings of the original Weather Girls singing “It’s Raining Men” (unfortunately missing my favorite part “I feel stormy weather moving in – In the thunder don’t you lose your head – Rip off the roof and stay in bed”) and the 1998 “Sequel” featuring original Weather Girl Martha Walsh and none other than RuPaul adding some extra sass as well as including my favorite section:
It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls
It’s Raining Men … The Sequel – Martha Walsh featuring RuPaul
Act Two was billed as Stories from The Generations Project, bringing three individuals on stage to tell moving stories of their lives that tied into our shared struggle and led to spirited musical performances.
First was Brian Belovitch, who left for New York City in 1974 after his mother caught him camping it up in a Gay bar and didn’t exactly take it well. He transitioned to become Tish Gervais, with “double D breasts”, and for a while lived in Germany, married to a G. I.
The marriage dissolved when Belovitch wouldn’t complete gender reassignment surgery. After struggling with alcoholism and living with HIV, Brian stopped taking his hormones, turned inward and still to reconnect with himself, and “now lives proudly as a beloved gay man”, married to his partner of 15 years.
Brian’s tale was followed by a fun rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I wish the Corps would eventually post a video of this wild arrangement. Listen to the recording below and imagine solo saxophones taking up the melody in the ballad-y sections; and when we get to the nutty “operatic” section imagine the many vocal echoes getting tossed about from instrumental section to instrumental section. Unfortunately the performance Saturday night was not quite as confidently and crisply performed as most of the other pieces.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Reginald Brown spoke of forming the first Gay student organization at his university in Kansas in the early 1970’s, of performing overseas as a professional dancer, of being diagnosed 1986 with HIV and promising himself that he “would live until he died”, staying “active, alive and in positive spirit”. Reginald is known as a community activist, but he spent most of his time on stage not talking about that but of his mother, who was his closest friend and champion, and who, when he came out to her in the early ’70s, told him she “taught him to love, not who to love”.
Reginald’s reminiscences were followed by “An Obvious Love” (Gary Gilroy), a video of a rehearsal rendition the Big Apple Corps has also provided. As with “Echoes of Memories”, the performance on Saturday was particularly rich, clear and moving:
The third guest from The Generations Project, Colleen Meenan, tied her tale to the history of the struggle for including Irish Gays and Lesbians in New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade. She told of going to the parade with her grandmother as a child, and of being a cop in the NYPD. And of sitting down in the middle of Fifth avenue the first year of protest against our discriminatory exclusion from the parade. A police inspector, Colleen’s boss, walked up to her as she sat on the asphalt, and told her she didn’t need to do this, she could save herself a lot of trouble if she just stood up. Colleen was too overwhelmed with emotion to respond verbally, but she was thinking: “I am standing up.”
After over twenty years of protests against the bigotry of NYC’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, its organizers finally relented and allowed LGBTQ Irish to march openly when corporate sponsors threatened to pull funding.
The Symphonic Band played a “Suite on Celtic Folk Songs” (Tomohiro Tateben), which rivaled their rendition of the Holst for musical drama and surpassed everything for virtuosic playing, so exciting were the arrangements and executions of fast Celtic arpeggios running through some of the instrumental soloists and groups. Clearly the Symphonic Band put the lion’s share of their care and attention to the classical pieces on the program, and the results there were impressive.
Finally Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE – Services and Advocay for GLBT Elders – was presented with the 2017 Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Profile in Leadership Award, and the Symphonic Band concluded their program with another rousing classical arrangement: “Rhapsody on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (Toshiro Horiuchi). As an encore, “Let the Sunshine In” from “Hair” was reprised, with the audience happily clapping along.
No YouTube videos of the band’s renditions of these final pieces yet exist, so I’ll close this write up of a very satisfying concert experience by sharing the “encore” as performed in the movie soundtrack of “Hair”
The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In) – Hair