Vancouver Men's Chorus finale. Image: Penney Kome

Sometimes a conference is so much fun that it calls itself a festival. Consider the Unison Festival Unisson conference that happened in Calgary on Victoria Day weekend.  On the festival’s 20th anniversary, 20 LGBTQ (and allies) choirs and choruses spent the weekend strutting their stuff at Mount Royal University’s stunning new Bella Concert Hall.

Unlike other choral gatherings, though, at Unison there was no competition. Unison Festival emphasized inclusion and creativity instead. Allies join these choirs in part because community-building has always been a high priority.  Choral music — singing together — has always been a way for people to come together in times of joy or grief.

GALA Choruses (the U.S. Gay and Lesbian Association for choirs) dates the LGBTQ chorus movement from 1975, when “Anna Crusis Women’s Choir, GALA Choruses’ most-tenured member chorus, [was] formed in Philadelphia.”

The movement gained momentum after the San Franciso Men’s Chorus arose spontaneously from people singing together at Harvey Milk’s memorial the night in November 1978 that he was assassinated. Today, GALA Choruses says, some 190 choruses belong, with more than 10,000 members across the USA. 

A sense of community continues to attract singers, but the political urgency that once drove them has eased, along with the AIDS crisis and overt oppression. Instead, says a Chorus America article, groups have concentrated on artistic and musical excellence: “The level of singing has dramatically improved as gay and lesbian choruses have grown in size and professionalism.”   

Human rights are still a high priority here in Canada. The Calgary Unison Festival meeting continued the organization’s bilingual tradition, and expanded to include Indigenous and non-binary perspectives. Watching about six hours of opening, closing, and guest choruses brought to mind the hit TV high school drama, Glee, that ran for six years (until 2015), on the Fox Network — constant performances, with the sad songs and the dance songs, the unexpected acrobatics, the diversity and the humour.

The Festival opened with a welcoming concert presented by the three Calgary choirs anchoring the conference: One Voice Chorus (OVC), directed by Jane Perry; the Barbarellas, directed by Cora Castle; and Calgary Men’s Chorus (CMC), directed by Malcolm Edwards. [Full disclosure: I sing in UUphonia, another choir directed by Jane Perry, the conference’s artistic co-director with Jean-Louis Bleau, and our chamber choir includes Cora Castle, who was the conference’s administrator.]  

The three choirs highlighted three different choral styles, leading with OVC’s cutting-edge explorations with Indigenous artists and with spoken word artist, Sheri-D Wilson, Calgary’s new Poet Laureate, raising her dramatic voice alongside the rising chorus of OVC’s 30 singers. The dozen Barbarellas, wearing boater hats and shiny gold vests, sang barbershop versions of songs like “When I Sing” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” along with the crowd-pleasing “Fishing with the Lesbians.”  

Finally, 35 members of the Calgary Men’s Chorus, clad all in black, brought a rumbling version of “Roll Jordan Roll” along with songs by Handel and by Ian Tyson. Then, OVC and the Barbarellas came back onstage, this time dressed all in black.  

OVC introduced Iinisikimm, a theatrical production created by young Indigenous and New Canadian artists in 2017, to celebrate the return of the buffalo to Banff National Park. Four Indigenous drummers came out, carrying a giant ceremonial drum. Led by Sorrel Rider and Troy Emery Twigg, they sat down, set the beat, and started to sing.

Seventy choristers answered with their own songs, settling into a musical conversation with the throbbing heartbeat of the drum. Then the stage lights dimmed and the chorus changed to “We Can Mend the Sky.” From the stage wings came glowing human-sized buffalo puppets, one adult and one calf from each side. The effect was breathtaking.    

In another presentation, Vancouver Men’s Chorus arrived nearly 100 strong, in dazzling tuxedos, along with their own dancers and vignettes — a dozen hooligans in leather jackets here, three stuffed shirts strutting with their phones there, another dozen dancers in sweatshirts labelled “Cis,” “Bi,” “Trans” and more, to show the folly of judging a person by their appearance.

Generally there was a huge variety of music on offer, including classical, sacred, rock, pop, jazz, Motown, love songs, novelty songs, and several original or commissioned pieces. Drumsets, string quartets, a horn section and ballet dancers heightened the drama in some songs.

Gay anthems popped up occasionally. Singing Out presented “Born This Way” with a preface by a choir member who said that she feels she’s “on the right track” because she re-made her body to suit who she felt she is. Every set seemed to include one sad song saying it’s all right to be different, and one sassy upbeat song saying don’t worry honey, you’re terrific as you are.   

The closing concert, for example, had a sacred Allelluia and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The newish “You Will Be Found” song featured two young women cousins, one deaf, turning sign language into a dance in place. For the final song, soprano Chenelle Roberts led the assembly in “I Will Survive,” the #1 gay anthem of all time.

Still, the difference between a “Festival” and a conference is significant. Calgary’s Folk Festival and Blues Festival attract thousands of paying customers. Unison Festival was more like a private party, with more than 650 delegates getting first dibs on the 700 hall seats available.

Security was unobtrusively built into the location and the nearby residence where most delegates stayed. Most Calgarians never heard about the fabulous entertainers in town. What a shame they missed out! On the other hand, LGBTQ people still have legitimate fears for their safety, especially in a city with Calgary’s reputation for gay-bashing.

Unison Festival’s shows are well worth attending, for anyone with an interest in choral music or even just some fun and stimulating entertainment. The next Festival will be in 2022, in Halifax. Meanwhile, their U.S. counterpart GALA holds its next festival in Minneapolis in 2020. Calgary is the richer for its role as venue this year.

Image: Penney Kome

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...