Celebrating its 24th anniversary, the 198-member Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles certainly picked a timely repertoire for its annual spring weekend of concerts at Glendale’s Alex Theater. Titled “Red, White and Blues: An American Music Celebration,” the chorus sang its way through a broad sampling of musical styles, classical and popular, exploring what it means to be American. The GMCLA, under the musical direction of conductor Bruce Mayhall, is not melodically or harmonically adventurous, opting for a sonorous, traditional male glee club sound and harmonic structure that was perfectly in sync with most of the lengthy program. Not everything worked to optimum effect. Though onstage pianist Tom Shell provided solid accompaniment throughout, there were a few numbers that stretched the ability of GMCLA’s style and musicianship.
Beginning with a nicely balanced a cappella rendering of the introspective “This We Know” by Ron Jeffers and Chief Seattle, the choir’s program was divided into five sections, progressively chronicling the progress made in the evolution of lives of Americans. The opening group of songs focused on the immigration process, highlighted by Roy Ringwald’s beautifully voiced arrangement of Irving Berlin’s Statue of Liberty anthem, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” featuring the words of Emma Lazarus.
This was followed by a tedious, many-versed a cappella outing on the melodically simplistic sea chantey “Blow the Man Down.” The pop-oriented group-within-a-group known as the Americanos closed out the section with a comical, Chiquita Banana-accented “America” from “West Side Story” that incorporated new lyrics about the gay experience.
The second part of the program emphasized the evolution of this country’s mainstream culture. Choir member Wayne Chiu displayed his clarinet skills in a lovely obbligato to Steven Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” The choir then did what it does best, offering a haunting, full-voiced performance of the Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” adapted by Aaron Copland. Another attempt at comedy featured choir members in multicolored chaps performing a less-than-scintillating medley of such cowboy ditties as “Home on the Range,” “Get Along Little Doggies” and “Oh Bury Me Not.”
The third section of the evening, celebrating the works of noted American composers, featured some of the most musically rewarding soloists of the evening. Baritone Bill Bowersock sang a nicely sensual version of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” although he could have done without the intrusive background vocalizations of the pitch-deprived vocal sextet billed as the Blues Brothers.
Tenor Pier Carlo Talenti soared through George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and basso John DesLauriers deserved the standing ovation he got after his profoundly moving “Ol’ Man River,” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. This section ended with a laughably square full-choir version of Duke Ellington’s “Hit Me With a Hot Note,” proving the Duke’s adage: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
After an intermission, the choir focused on gay America, opening with the impressive coming-out “Poem” from Frank O’Hara’s “The Light in the Eyes,” with original music by DesLauriers. Tenor Howard Leder was impressive with the harmonically complex “To What You Said,” a musical chronicle of the sad travels of a gay man, with music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Walt Whitman. This section also featured guest soloist soprano Marilyn Lovell Matz (wife of composer-arranger Peter Matz), who offered an earnest rendering of James Taylor’s “The Secret of Life,” arranged by her late husband. Matz’s arrangements also highlighted the choir’s perfs of “Of Thee I Sing” and a beautifully arranged medley of Berlin’s “America” and Samuel A. Ward’s “America the Beautiful,” featuring tenor soloists Santo Ragno and Peter Dung.
The final segment of the program was themed “America Is What You Choose to Make It,” featuring some of the choir’s most impressive ensemble work. Highlights included the George N. Allen hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” with added words by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Paul Simon’s “American Tune”; and Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow,” from “Candide.”