Asheville Gay Men’s Chorus celebrates its 20th anniversary

LIFT EVERY VOICE: To commemorate two decades of music — and major shifts in attitudes toward the LGBTQ community — Cantaria is preparing an impressive program featuring some songs from its original lineup as well as a handful of originals. Among the latter is a new, two-part piece composed by David Troy Francis of Asheville, with lyrics by local poet Gavin Dillard. Photo courtesy of Cantaria

On a recent Thursday night, Man Treble, an offshoot of Cantaria: Asheville Gay Men’s Chorus, had a quick rehearsal in the sanctuary at All Soul’s Cathedral in Biltmore Village. The group wended its way through a spirited version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that ended with a stunning, Broadway-style belted harmony. It’s one of a handful of selections (along with “I Will Survive”) that Man Treble will perform when Cantaria celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert at the Diana Wortham Theatre on Saturday, June 16.

Asheville had a gay men’s chorus before Cantaria, though bass vocalist David Hopes notes, “They were just bad. They fell apart.” In the wake of that group’s dissolution, a number of men, including Jack Parsons, Will Jones and David Friddle, had a vision for a new chorus and began to gather members to get things going.

“It was a way to be representative,” Parsons explains. Asheville was a very different place in 1998: There was no Blue Ridge Pride and what LGBTQ community existed was not entirely out and loud, much less well-connected.

Despite all that, the North Carolina Pride celebration was scheduled to happen in Asheville that year, so there was a buzz in the city about LGBTQ visibility and an opening for a new gay men’s chorus to emerge.

Hopes remembers being approached by Parsons to audition for Cantaria. “They had plenty of tenors,” he says. “They needed basses.” But because Hopes had not been impressed with the previous gay men’s chorus, he had no interest in getting involved with a new iteration.

Then one night, Parsons invited him over for dinner and struck up a singalong. As Hopes joined in, he had no idea that another man at the gathering, Friddle, was to be the director of Cantaria. He had inadvertently walked into an audition. He finally relented and joined the chorus and has happily participated every year since. “I’ve only missed one concert,” he says, “because I was on sabbatical.”

In the 20 years since, Cantaria has grown from eight men to 20, has cycled through a handful of directors and is now led by Simone Bernhard — its first female director.

Bernhard says she was in a choir rehearsal at All Souls one day when she overheard a couple of people lamenting that Cantaria needed an interim director. A concert had been scheduled before previous director Steven Cooper had to leave due to family health issues. The group needed someone to come in, construct a program and begin rehearsals immediately. Bernhard leapt into the role, and the concert went down without a hitch.

“I hadn’t worked with a men’s choir before,” she says, explaining her background is in jazz, theater and opera, mostly with choruses that feature both male and female voices. “It’s fun. It’s not your regular classical choir or college choir. It’s a very specific repertoire that a gay choir has. There’s a huge world of music and repertoire out there. GALA has been going for [almost 40] years, so there’s a tradition here … but I hadn’t really dipped my toe into it at all because I’d never had the opportunity.”

GALA refers to the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses — a national outfit founded in San Francisco in 1982. Representatives from GALA will be on hand to help celebrate Cantaria’s 20th anniversary, and several former members of the chorus will join in for a song from the group’s first concert in ’98. Western Carolina University students will also share videos they’ve produced, depicting the story of the chorus, and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer will deliver a proclamation.

As for the music, Cantaria is preparing an impressive program featuring some songs from its original lineup as well as a handful of originals. Among the latter is a new, two-part piece composed by David Troy Francis of Asheville, with lyrics by local poet Gavin Dillard. Bernhard is also looking forward to a piece titled “Dedication,” which composer Richard Burchard created to accompany Mark Twain’s “Goodnight Dear Heart.” It will begin with a poem written by Hopes to honor former members of Cantaria who have passed away.

“Testimony” is another selection of note. Originally composed for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, its various parts tell a story about coming out, moving from self-hatred to liberation. It ends with a section about camaraderie and living authentically. To contrast is “Color Out of Colorado,” a fun, funny empowerment anthem about how drab the U.S. would be without openly gay men. (“You can’t have New York City without Queens!”)

The latter is a particular favorite of Marc Eden, who has sung with the group for nine years and notes, with some sarcasm, “This is the straightest bunch of gay guys I’ve ever known.” Many gay men’s choruses, he explains, are known for their flamboyance, but Cantaria is full of very talented, serious singers. “They’re loosening up more now,” he adds, noting that “Color Out of Colorado” really brings out their character.

But the biggest thing that’s changed over time, says Hopes, is that “there used to be a fighting-for-our-lives vibe,” which seems to have, thankfully, passed. He’s careful to add that transgender people are still facing a lot of danger and opposition, but he feels as though there is much to celebrate with the way the culture in the South, especially in Asheville, has moved in the past 20 years. And what better way to celebrate than with a night full of music?

WHAT: Cantaria: Asheville Gay Men’s Chorus 2oth-anniversary concert
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Saturday, June 16, 7:30 p.m. $20-$45

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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