For 30 years, the hundreds of members of the Turtle Creek Chorale have sung for the love of singing. Its an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization. Its 200 or so singers, all men, pay dues to be part of the group whose mission is to entertain, educate, unite and uplift our audiences and members through music that is distinguished for its innovation, diversity and artistic excellence. Besides concerts, they donate a combined 100,000 hours to rehearsals and service projects and to performing more than 50 benefit shows each year. They are Dallas largest and loudest glee club, part of a long tradition of all-male singing clubs that harkens back to the 1700s, when men in Europes German-speaking countries gathered in small groups to sing short songs called glees and catches. The popularity of glee clubs spread to England and then to the Ivy League colleges in the United States in the 1800s. Thanks to the TV series Glee, interest in group and choral singing has had a sudden resurgence, which has boosted interest in and the audience for big choirs like the Turtle Creek Chorale.
This year the chorale will perform its 31st season of formal concerts at the Meyerson Symphony Center, beginning with A Night for Peace at 8 p.m. October 18. That event is part of the Chorales Partners in Harmony program started seven years ago to reach out to churches. There are now 44 religious institutions affiliated with the chorale. (The latest to join is Congregation Shearith Israel.) The first joint concert of the season will feature the Turtle Creek Chorale, the SMU Meadows Chorale, Dallas Wind Symphony, Lay Family Organ and more than 300 singers in a mass choir performing peace anthems by Bach, Mendelssohn and Moses Hogan.
Big shows are nothing new for the chorale, which performs a series of standing-room-only Christmas concerts at the Meyerson every year. They have played sold-out concerts in Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin and Prague, and made two appearances at Carnegie Hall. Other milestones in the chorales recent history are the Texas premier of Night Passage, a one-act opera based on the arrest of Oscar Wilde; and the premiere of the TCC-commissioned work, Our Better Angels, composed by Andrea Clearfield with text by Robert Espindola.
The chorale also achieved another first recently with its co-performance with the United States Army Chorus. This event was the first time a gay-centric chorus has appeared with a U.S. military music ensemble. The chorale has recorded 36 CDs and several DVDs. There are concert videos on YouTube and they have been the subject of a couple of documentary films, including the poignant KERA-produced film After Goodbye: An AIDS Story, chronicling the impact of HIV-AIDS on the friends, families and members of the chorale. To date, the group has lost more than 200 members to HIV-AIDS since the 1980s.
Though the chorale is styled as a gay-friendly organization, conductor and artistic director Dr. Jonathan Palant prefers not to refer to it as a gay mens chorus. Being gay is not a requirement for membership and there are straight men in the group, Palant says. The group operates with no political agenda, though of course we have beliefs for equality and basic civil and human rights, says the conductor.
However Palant defines it, the all-male chorale membership is full of couples, many of whom met at rehearsals, and there are not a few ex-partners who met in the chorale, broke up and still sing on the same stage together.
Whats so special about the chorale is that its so much more than a chorusits a family, says Palant, who has a doctorate in choral conducting from the University of Michigan. It has become a sanctuary for many members who have been ostracized from their families, or who live far away from them. We are like brothers. It is, in many ways, a fraternity.
Among the singers currently in the chorale, only a few have been there since the beginning. Palant says theres about a 50 percent turnover in membership every three or four years, a natural progression given the transient nature of todays job market. The group did hold a reunion in its 25th year, gathering all the past conductors and as many chorus members as they could round up.
If theres a challenge for the future of the chorale, it is finding new ways to outdo ourselves, Palant says. In Dallas, its a constant struggle to top our last performance. Financially, however, theyre in good shape, finishing last season with a six-figure surplus on a $1 million annual budget. One way theyre saving money is by using social mediaTwitter and Facebookto do free marketing. Palant estimates more than 70 percent of current ticket sales are spurred by e-mail blasts, Facebook and Twitter posts, and online mentions by sites such as Dallas-based Gay List Daily. Going into the new season, Palant frets a little about increasing competition for the arts dollar in the Dallas Arts District. Competition for those disposable consumer dollars is greater now than ever, he says, but we have an ever-growing arts culture in this city, so its a wonderful problem to have.