Nailing the classic Christmas choral composition would require nearly everyone in the choir to dig deep.
“I talked it up and said it’s very difficult guys,” recalls Bryan Crocker, conductor of the Halifax Gay Men’s Chorus.
The group hadn’t yet had a year under its belt, though they had played to two sold-out audiences. But the experienced conductor believed his guys had it in them. With enough practice, they could master Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on This Shining Night.
“It’s just beautiful lyrically but (a) complicated piece. You’re breaking the choir into four parts, sometimes five, and they all have individual lines that interlink together accompanied by the piano. From the audience’s perspective, you’re just getting this wealth of music coming at you.”
It took the group of mostly amateurs, ranging in ages from 20 to 70-plus, only a month to get it right.
“It was amazing. I knew then that whatever I give these guys we can pull it off.”
Then came the group’s first Christmas performance, another sold-out venue at St. Andrew’s United Church in Halifax on Dec. 12. They nailed it. Crocker felt the audience gasp in the final moments of Sure on This Shining Night.
“But to think that in 2019, 65 gay men can stand up on a stage and are proud to be standing there, can walk down in the audience, singing carols and feel completely comfortable, looking in the eyes of strangers, that to me shows how far we’ve come.”
– Bryan Crocker, conductor of the Halifax Gay Men’s Chorus
“It finished very quietly, then there’s that two to three seconds and the roar starts,” recalled Crocker. “After it was all over, I had people coming up to me saying they laughed as hard as they ever laughed before and I made them cry all in the span of 10 minutes.
“I’m very proud of this group.”
Crocker, who’s also the co-artistic director of Nova Scotia’s provincial Men’s Choir Nova Voce, has big ambitions for the group. By now he’s convinced the choir rivals any in the city.
“I wanted us to do a serious choral repertoire for both sets of concerts that we’ve done so far. It’s been a mix of fun stuff with dancing and choral repertoire that the best choir in the city would attend.”
But this choir is fulfilling another of his ambitions: to create a gathering place for gay men of all ages.
“We don’t all get together, you have your group of friends and we’ll all celebrate Halifax Pride for that week in July, but now we have something different, an intergenerational group of 65 men getting together on Thursday nights and we make it social.
“We sing together, we might go out for a beer. It’s a way of bringing us together. Most of us in the choir didn’t know one another. You’re meeting people with the same vision and values. It’s wonderful.”
Albert Dorey, who’s in his 70s, agrees. He joined the group without any real musical training but he was looking for a way to reconnect to the gay community. He has found that and discovered he’s not a bad singer either. But he’s worked at it. He credits Crocker for much of his progress.
“Number one, I feel more confident when I sing,” said Dorey. “I know more about breath control and holding a note that I certainly wouldn’t have known before I joined the choir and if I wasn’t under Brian’s tutorship.”
Like Crocker, he’s well aware of the gains the gay community has made in the city. The former teacher recalls the fear of losing his job over his sexuality back in the 1970s. Being an openly gay man meant you could be banished from the profession.
“One of the first gay pride events I attended, people were wearing paper bags over their heads as they marched up Sackville Street and I certainly didn’t take part because I wasn’t going to put my job in jeopardy,” he said. “But to think that in 2019, 65 gay men can stand up on a stage and are proud to be standing there, can walk down in the audience, singing carols and feel completely comfortable, looking in the eyes of strangers, that to me shows how far we’ve come. I’m being accepted for who I am.”
Oliver Oldfield, 20, discovered the choir back in July when the group played during Pride Week. Oldfield, who performed with elementary and junior high school choirs, wanted to get back into music where he could embrace his gay identity.
It’s turned out to be a great decision and he credits Crocker for being the glue holding the choir together.
“It’s all about his passion for music and for us,” said Oldfield. “It’s not just a passion for the music but the community we’ve created.”
For Oldfield, a transgender person, the choir represents a safe place where he’s free to be himself.
“A lot of us in the community don’t feel capable of expressing our full selves to the everyday world,” he said. “In specifically queer spaces, I’m able to let loose and be myself and not think about how I’m acting. I can just be true to myself and that’s a big burden off my shoulders.”