On the road to Tyler with the Turtle Creek Chorale

Gay men’s chorus went to East Texas prepared for protest, but instead found a warm welcome

DAVID TAFFET  |  taffet@dallasvoice.com

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NEW IN TOWN | Members of the Turtle Creek Chorale get off the bus in Tyler for their concert at First Presbyterian Church. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

TYLER — After their trip to Spain last summer, Turtle Creek Chorale Artistic Director Jonathan Palant invited me to join them on their next trip. With expenses approved, I was ready. Little did I know that the group’s next tour would be a bus trip to Tyler.

On Saturday, Dec. 11, I accompanied the chorale members as they traveled to East Texas for an out-of-town tryout of their upcoming holiday concert.  One chorale member on the bus assured me, “It’s just like Spain — except nothing like it at all.”

Controversy surrounded the Tyler trip since the church that was originally to host the concert rescinded the invitation. That happened after several large donors threatened to pull their support, causing Marvin Methodist Church to inform the chorale they were no longer welcome to perform there.

But nearby First Presbyterian Church stepped in and welcomed the group to perform a concert as part of that church’s December music and fine arts series.

On Saturday afternoon, Dec. 11, the Chorale left from Cathedral of Hope at 2:30 p.m. in two buses. Several members drove separately.

The group started off for Tyler with at least a little nervousness. Demonstrators had protested the performance of The Laramie Project in Tyler over the summer.

The play about Matthew Shepard recalled a similar incident that occurred in Tyler in 1993 when Nicholas West was kidnapped and murdered in Bergfeld Park. On World AIDS Day this year, a plaque was unveiled in the park memorializing West’s death. That mere placing of a marker to remember a murder also stirred controversy in this East Texas city.

And the demonstrators had threatened to return to protest Saturday night’s chorale performance. Singers said that threat was on their minds as they drove to East Texas that afternoon. In its 31-year history, the chorale has never been protested.

When the buses pulled up to the church right off of Broadway, Tyler’s main street, only church staff greeted the chorale. No protesters in sight.

Chorale members retrieved their garment bags from under the buses, filed into the church, laid their concert attire down over the pews and quickly gathered at the pulpit to begin blocking and rehearsing.

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GETTING READY | The Turtle Creek Chorale rehearses at First Presbyterian Church in Tyler before their performance there Saturday. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Several songs got full run-throughs. The singers’ entrance and exit from the pulpit-turned-stage was quickly improvised. Small groups like Encore, soloists, a drum group and a tambourine quartet figured out how they would make their way from various positions among the chorus to front and off-center on the main floor.

Betelehemu, a Nigerian Christmas song, required foot motion and hand gestures during the performance. A few members weren’t coordinating their motions. Palant suggested those singers only do the hand gestures. A second run-through of the song went smoother.

At 6 p.m., the church served dinner in the Fellowship Hall. By 6:50 p.m., most of the singers were upstairs in the classrooms, changing into their tuxedos.

I checked the sidewalks around the church. Still no protesters.

The pews were already filling up.

At 7:10 p.m., everyone met in the chapel behind the main sanctuary. Don Jones, who signs every concert for the hearing-impaired, rehearsed the group’s signing of Silent Night.

Then Palant reviewed what he called stage etiquette.

“Jackets unbuttoned,” he said.

Someone joked that was because Palant could no longer button his.

“Never applaud our own singers,” Palant said. “Smile.”

Don’t wipe tears. Emotion is good. Wiping is distracting. Place hands down when jazz hands aren’t required.

For the chorale, no gesture, no motion, no entrance on stage goes unrehearsed.

Before leaving the chapel, everyone joined hands for a pre-performance chorale ritual: Palant said the Jewish prayer of thanks that marks special occasions called Shehechianu.

He said the prayer was a favorite of his in his own tradition and it became a chorale tradition in his second season. Members embraced it and several explained its beauty to me.

Palant told the singers that this concert was an example of “the power of harmony to tear down walls.”

Some audience members had arriving early because of a mix-up in the newspaper. The Patriot Singers and Chorale of UT Tyler were scheduled at 6 p.m. the following night. The newspaper switched the Dallas group and UT’s appearances.

When told who tonight’s performers were, one couple left. Another several shrugged and decide to stay anyway.

By 7:30 p.m., the sanctuary was standing room only. Although no protesters showed up outside the church, the audience was as aware of the controversy as the chorale.

Cecily Luft is a board member of the church. She said that two weeks earlier, the chapel where the chorale was now gathered was the site of a World AIDS Day service and the dedication ceremony for the Nicholas West plaque.

Rabbi Neal Katz from Tyler’s Congregation Beth El and the Rev. Stuart Baskin, First Presbyterian’s pastor, conducted the service, said Luft. Sheriff Lupe Valdez also spoke at the event in the church.

Luft said that when Music Director Donald Duncan told the board about what happened at the Methodist church down the street, they unanimously voted to invite the chorale to perform there.

“Gay” never entered the discussion, she said.

“This is the most gay-friendly church in Tyler,” Luft said. “It just was never an issue.”

Then she boasted, “And we have the best acoustics in Tyler.”

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READY TO TAKE THE STAGE | Turtle Creek Chorale members dressed for performance wait to begin their concert at First Presbyterian Church in Tyler. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

The acoustics were magnificent in the church and the chorale sounded best from the choir loft or balcony at the rear of the church.

After the chorale filed into the sanctuary and sang its first number, Deck the Halls, Duncan welcomed the group to Tyler.

“Despite the controversy surrounding your venue, we are very glad you are here,” he said. “As you can see by the crowd, a whole lot of people in Tyler are welcoming you, too, and you are welcome back anytime.”

His remarks were interrupted by applause several times.

Later in the concert, Palant introduced several people, including the group Tyler Area Gays, which filled several rows and had done much of the publicity for the event. Loud applause from the crowd greeted Tyler’s gay group.

Duncan acknowledged NPR reporter Wade Goodwin, who was there working on a piece about the chorale for Public Radio.

The audience took Palant’s jokes in good humor, including calling Tyler “the bastion of liberalism,” although his question, “Are there any Latin scholars here?” met silence followed by uneasy laughter.

Throughout the show, the applause was warm, but Betelehemu brought a number of audience members to their feet. If any of the swaying on stage was not coordinated, no one noticed.

After the concert, CD sales were brisk.

One audience member filing out of the church made a point of saying, “We’re Methodists and we loved it,” indicating that not everyone at Marvin Methodist agreed with that church’s decision to uninvite the group.

On the return bus trip to Dallas, everyone was excited about the day.

“I thought it was a great performance,” said chorale member Kevin Hodges. “I told a woman who said ‘thank you’ that it’s a joy for us.”

“I was choking back tears,” said singer Gene Olvera. “Invigorating,” added Darrin Humphrey, another chorale member.

“To me, it’s the sort of thing that made me stay in the chorale 17 years,” said C. E. Bunkley. “There’s purpose to it.”

Palant told the riders in his bus that he wants to do another out-of-town performance next year in another city that might not be completely welcoming.

He said that unlike many other gay men’s choruses around the country, the chorale gets out of the gay ghetto: “That’s part of our mission.”

“It was fun,” said chorale President Dean Baugh. “Up until the point I looked out and people were crying.”

“I was very proud,” said singer Hank Henley.

On the return bus ride, chorale members discussed the lack of protesters. Several suggested that as much as some might have been offended by the chorale’s appearance in town, maybe that group has more shame than Fred Phelps’ notorious Westboro clan and just wouldn’t protest a church.

Palant commented on the energy he felt from both the audience and his group. “As a performer, you perform with your dukes up,” he said. “You puff up your chest and it influences the performance. Tonight was a good example. They fed off our energy and we fed off theirs. We wanted to give them more.”

He said he consciously did not bring up the controversy of the location but was glad that Duncan had.

“I wanted to make an issue of it earlier on,” said Stephen Tosha, the chorale’s senior executive director. He said he wanted the chorale to move more in that direction.

But singer DiMarcus Williams summed up why most of the members of the chorale devote so much time and energy and why they spend so much of their own money to continue performing with the group.

“It was nice to be performing in front of such a welcoming and receptive audience,” said Williams.

Turtle Creek Chorale Holiday Concert, Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. Dec. 20 and 22 at 8 p.m. $30–$67. TurtleCreek.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Good will toward men

Homophobia nearly derailed the TCC’s planned Tyler concert, but some scrambling saved the day — even without drag queens

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

O, HOLY CRAP | A three-year effort for the Chorale to perform in Tyler was almost scuttled, but with a little help from Santa, Jonathan Palant, left, found a solution. Dallas will get its annual Christmas concerts, too. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

O HOLY NIGHT
Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. Dec. 15, 20 and 22.
8 p.m. $30–$67.
TurtleCreek.org.

……………………..

Almost since Jonathan Palant took over as artistic director of the Turtle Creek Chorale, he’s been trying to schedule a concert in Tyler. He is friends with the choir director of the Marvin United Methodist Church, a congregation with an inclusive pastor and active concert series. It was all but a sealed deal earlier this year.

Then came word this summer that some powerful members of the church objected to a gay men’s chorus performing. The offer to perform there was revoked.

“At the time, my blood was boiling,” Palant admits. “But teaching acceptance is in our mission statement, and my personal approach is to encourage tolerance. This wasn’t a time for payback. A picture is worth a thousand words, like the one of the TCC standing beside the [all-men] U.S. Army Chorus. That makes more of a statement that a speech could.”

And he wanted to do that same with the Tyler concert.

“We circled back around and found a different location. Within three weeks we had three churches asking to host us. For acoustics and size, we went to the First Presbyterian Church, and they voted unanimously to approve it,” he says. Which means Tyler will be getting its chorale Christmas concert after all.

And the adage no press is bad press seems to be holding true. “Word has it everybody in Tyler is gonna make a night of it — I’m told it will be standing room only in the 750 seat sanctuary. It’s all the more enticing to attend [when you have been banned],” he says.

The chorale is well-known for its campy concerts, even (especially?) at Christmastime, but Palant says he wanted to go old-school this year — both in the slightly truncated Tyler version and the one that returns to the Meyerson Symphony Center for three performances, starting Wednesday.

“Since we’re back at our home in the Meyerson [following last year’s concert at the Winspear], I really wanted to make it ‘home for the holidays’ — your favorite Christmas carols that you could sing along to,” he says. “We’re leaving the plots and the theatrics behind this year and, as one member called it, the deluxe version of the TCC holiday concert because it’s very traditional — very stand and sing or as I call it ‘park and bark.’”

For traditionalists of another kind, however, there are plenty of chorale favorites. On the slate will be the popular Nigerian hymn “Betelehemu” with African drums, a few light-hearted numbers (one, called “Omnes Virginus Levite Manus” should recall the best of chorale humor, but is more invigorating than silly) and there will of course be “Silent Night” performed with American Sign Language solos and the dedication of poinsettias for departed chorale members (the number has grown to more than 180). And Santa Claus will be there as always.

“We have some new arrangements that are unique enough to keep them fresh but the melodies are still there, like an amazing version of ‘Silver Bells,’ a great gospel arrangement of ‘Children, Go Where I Send Thee’ and a stunning minimalistic version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ — it’s the version used in the movie Sex and the City,” Palant says.

Sex and the City figuring into a Christmas concert? Sounds like the chorale we’ve come to know and love.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Plaque in Tyler park to honor Nicholas West, murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in 1993

Nicholas West

On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, Project TAG (Tyler Area Gays) and Tyler AIDS Services will unveil a plaque in Bergfeld Park honoring the memory of Nicholas West.

West was kidnapped from Bergfeld Park on Oct.  31, 1993. He was tortured, shot and left for dead. He was targeted because his three assailants presumed he was gay. At their trial, they confessed that they wanted to kill a homosexual.

West’s two murderers received the death penalty in the case.

The story was featured recently in the Investigation Discovery channel series Hardcover Mysteries. Dallas Voice senior editor Tammye Nash, who interviewed one of West’s killers on death row, is portrayed in the show by a svelte brunette whom we all agree is perfect for the part. The story of West’s murder was also featured in Arthur Dong’s 1997 documentary Licensed to Kill.

This summer’s production of The Laramie Project was in West’s memory.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez will attend the unveiling of the plaque for West with her Smith County counterpart, J.B. Smith. So will Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass.

Following the dedication at 6 p.m., a World AIDS Day remembrance will be held at First Presbyterian Church, 230 West Rusk St. in Tyler at 6:30 p.m. followed by a candlelight vigil.

—  David Taffet