7 years after he stepped away from the podium, Tim Seelig — the Turtle Creek Chorale’s charismatic former artistic director — returns for TCC’s 35th anniversary concert
How fun is this?” Tim Seelig grins from his home in San Francisco. “I didn’t know we would get this opportunity again!”
The opportunity is our interview, something both of us probably thought happened for the last time more than four years ago, when Seelig — a lifelong Texan — picked up and moved, at age 60, to San Francisco. It was not to retire, though he thought he had done that a few years earlier when he stepped down, after 20 years, as artistic director of the Turtle Creek Chorale. Instead, it was to start a new adventure — really, a dream come true: To lead the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the granddaddy of queer choral music.
“When I stepped down from the TCC, I thought I was retiring, but it didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t expect to do this again — to lead a gay men’s chorus. But when the position [of artistic director at SFGMC] became available, of course I applied — I couldn’t not apply,” he says. “I just revered that this chorus exists, and the [cultural] landscape in San Francisco is pretty awesome. I get to work [in the same town] as one of the finest symphonic conductors in the world, who just married his partner. The San Francisco opera is also legendary — one of the three finest opera companies in America. The ballet has no peer.” And he has befriended and worked closely with the likes of Stephen Schwartz, Andrew Lippa and Jake Heggie — the last two of whom were involved intimately in Seelig’s recent wedding to his partner.
“That’s the kind of arts community I stepped into,” he smiles. “On the other hand, I stepped into a gay community that has been at the epicenter of almost every initiative, movement and insight inside the LGBT community — the AIDS quilt was started here, the rainbow flag was designed here, Harvey Milk was assassinated here. It’s an arts and LGBT mecca. It has been awesome.”
Yes, getting the position was the icing on his cake, a feather in his hat, a capstone to a career that had begun in earnest after Seelig came out … as an adult, after years of marriage (he has two grown children and two grandchildren, on whom he dotes) and being throttled emotionally by his church.
His coming-out process was painful and stressful, and he found a form of salvation in the Turtle Creek Chorale.
The chorale had existed for only about seven years before Seelig took up the baton, but it was still a huge gamble to take on this “baby gay,” Seelig admits. “I knew very little. They allowed me to blossom as a musician and as a gay man. They allowed me to grow into my own skin. My 20 years with the TCC made me who I am. It was the happiest time of my life.”
So last summer, when he received a call from Sean Baugh (who had recently been appointed acting artistic director of TCC), it was more than a blast from the past; it was an emotional sense-memory of an important chapter he has left behind.
“As they were planning the season last June, someone at the chorale said, ‘It’s our 35th anniversary — we need to commemorate it.’” The decision was made to see if Seelig would mind returning to lead the group that had been such an important part in the lives of both the man and the organization. “I think Sean may have had a little trepidation asking if I would do this. He told me to take my time, but I didn’t have to think about that for one second. I said absolutely I would be honored to do that,” Seelig says. He even waived his fee — the concert would be an act of love. “I could never, ever repay the organization and its members for a lifetime of memories, for their patience and generosity of spirit.”
“Welcoming Tim back to the podium for this concert is not only historic and exciting for the organization, it’s emotional for me as well,” says Baugh. “Tim is the reason I joined the chorale, and someone I admire very much. I’m thrilled to see him in his element again.”
Still, returning to pick up the baton wouldn’t be anything like a usual guest-conducting gig. There’s a lot of history, for sure, but it has been almost eight years since Seelig stepped away from the podium. Not every singing member would even necessarily know who he is.
“There is much more history than when I step in to conduct an all-star choir somewhere,” he admits. “The current chorale, many of them I don’t know. I’ll be saying hi, you don’t know me, but perhaps you’ve seen my bald head in the archives. Perhaps not. And there will be people who know me very well. It will be like putting on a well-worn, beloved pair of house shoes and trying on new Prada slippers at the same time. Making those two shoes work will be a great joy.”
“Sean is conducting two pieces from the time before I got there — standards in the repertoire now — including one number that was performed at the very first concert in 1980,” he says. Then Seelig will lead the singers through memory lane.
“We’re going in chronological order. The first half of the concert is the current chorale — the full chorus,” he says. “The second half will be the alumni, including the women I have conducted over the years.” (Seelig co-founded the women’s group within the TCC in 1989.) “Highlights from the show will include some of the TCC commissions — obviously from 1991’s When We No Longer Touch, and of course Sing for the Cure.”
“At 35, we are stronger than ever. I can’t think of any better way to do that than through the music that has made us who we are,” adds Baugh.
But more than just a standard recitation of songs, there will be stories woven together with video clips, as well as a tribute to Anne Albritton, “who was our life-blood,” Seelig says. Baugh and Seelig chose the music last summer and sent recordings and sheet music to the alumni and women, who have already begun rehearsing; but the real work will take place once Seelig arrives in Dallas next week.
“On Feb. 6, we’ll have a big reception followed by a three-hour rehearsal, then two more three-hour rehearsals on Saturday before the concert,” he says.
He’s certain that the return to the baton will, when he formally steps onstage, fill him with a flood of complex emotions. But it’s an experience he will long cherish.
“It’s been a wonderful, warm feeling,” Seelig says, “and I’ve felt so welcomed. I love the TCC so much … OK, now I’m crying.”
It’s not too late to join in! Participation in the concert is open to men and returning women up to Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. when the first rehearsal begins at the Cathedral of Hope.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 30, 2015.