"Music breaks down barriers. It's a language that can speak to so many people."
Marilyn Drew Necci | October 4, 2017
Unlike some larger choruses from bigger cities, such as the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC, the choruses that exist under the Monument City Music banner have never identified themselves as specifically LGBTQ. The group, which brings us the Richmond Men’s Chorus and the Richmond Women’s Chorus as well as the brand-new mixed-gender chorus known as the Noteables, includes non-LGBTQ members in all of its ensembles. However, for the folks in charge at Monument City Music, their connection with the LGBTQ community is one they’re interested in deepening and strengthening.
“Not everyone in the chorus is LGBTQ, but I think of it as LGBTQ and allies,” says Richmond Women’s Chorus director Erin Wind. “Of course it’s not a requirement, I’m not going to ask before you join, but I would say that it is largely an LGBTQ chorus.” For Richmond Men’s Chorus director Joshua Wortham, staying away from strictly defining the group’s membership was an important choice. “Music breaks down barriers. It’s a language that can speak to so many people,” he says. “To me our name presents a more inclusive offering. I think a chorus that is LGBTQ-affiliated or ally-connected gives voice to advocacy in a different way. It allows us to present unity. There’s such a beauty in the parallel of uniting our voices as one in a common theme and message, and at the same time uniting the community.”
Founded in 2001, the group was somewhat inspired by the devastation brought about by the events of September 11. “There was a strong desire to come together and create a chorus for the men in the community to strengthen each other,” explains Wortham. “We have so many talented singers, and this was a great chance to leverage that and bring that strength together.” The Richmond Men’s Chorus was the first ensemble created by Monument City Music, and it was joined several years later by the Richmond Women’s Chorus. This year sees a third group, the Noteables, join the roster.
“In the holiday concert, the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus team up for some pieces, but this is our first designated mixed chorus,” says Wortham. “Not all the members are LGBTQ, but part of their purpose is to have a stronger message in the gay community.” The Noteables will do this by focusing more closely on music that comes from the LGBTQ community. “I think the Noteables will devote a bit of their repertoire to lgbtq composers and lyricists, songs that make statements along those lines,” Wortham says.
The Noteables also present an opportunity for Monument City Music to reach people they couldn’t reach before. “It’s hard when people want to get the Men’s Chorus to come, but their venue doesn’t allow for a chorus of 45 people to line up on risers, have a piano, and still [fit] an audience for their event,” says Wortham. The Noteables, whose membership is expected to top out around 12, are able to avoid this potential pitfall. “So the Noteables are also a vessel for us to share Monument City Music’s larger message with a small portable group.”
The Noteables are not the only way in which Monument City Music is trying to increase their outreach to the LGBTQ community. Their season will also include performances at both VA PrideFest and the first-ever Petersburg Pride, which both Wortham and Wind are looking forward to. “I’m really excited about singing in Pride, because I think it incorporates the fact that we are an LGBTQ chorus,” says Wind.
Wind is brand new to Monument City Music, having signed on as Richmond Women’s Chorus director just before the current season, and she also hopes to bring a stronger emphasis on LGBTQ-oriented content. “I’m going to focus on the LGBTQ aspect of things by doing more music that’s catered toward that demographic,” she says. “There’s a choral website that has music geared toward gay choruses, so I might utilize that a bit.”
The ability to do LGBTQ-focused content is something Wortham cherishes about directing the Richmond Men’s Chorus. “In our most recent concert, we sang ‘Glenda & Laurie,’ which told the story of a lesbian couple that never quite got to be together,” he says. “That’s an incredible opportunity. I work with several other choirs, and that’s something that would never be part of their repertoire.”
Wortham doesn’t just work with any old choirs when he’s not directing the Richmond Men’s Chorus. “I’m a full time church musician,” he says. “That’s my day job, if you will.” Having worked at Chesterfield United Methodist Church as their choir director for the past 13 years, Wortham’s seen the congregation’s attitudes towards LGBTQ issues change significantly.
“When I started at this church I was not out, and I’m still not fully out at church,” he says. “I feel like God has used me at the church to help people become ok with the whole gay thing. There are folks there who, 13 years ago, would not have been supportive. They’re in a new place, and I feel like that’s been part of my purpose in being there. I earned their love and their respect, and then in time as our relationship grew, they saw that this was not a barrier but just one aspect of who I am.”
When the opportunity to direct the Richmond Men’s Chorus became available, Wortham had some reservations. “Church music is my love and my passion,” he says. “So I was a little reluctant because of my church affiliation. What did that step mean for my career and my ministry?” He also wasn’t sure he could even do the job. “When I heard them perform, they just sounded so great–blew me away,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m not even worthy to be a member of this group’.”
Despite all the trepidation, though, his time with Richmond Men’s Chorus has brought a lot of positive things to Wortham’s life. “It’s been a place to network,” he says. “A few of the guys have become part of my church choir, and some of the guys have come to do special music at the church. I’m hoping in the next year or so, the Men’s Chorus will actually come perform at a worship service. We continue to cross those lines.”
One very personal way Wortham has crossed those lines came during the Men’s Chorus performance at The Byrd Theatre in May. “I proposed to my partner of eight years,” he says. “That was a really public exciting moment in front of our audience, and that was a time when some of my church folks found out something they didn’t know about me.” However, Wortham has no regrets. “I was ready for that to be out there. I’m not broadcasting it or waving it in their faces, but I don’t want to hide who I am and who I love, because I think it’s a great relationship.”
Wind’s history with choir direction is a shorter one. “I was a music education major, for choral music. I went on to grad school for vocal performance, then I moved back here,” she says. “This is my first choir of my own, but I have done some student teaching, and directed some choirs in college.” For Wind, her first directorial position offers several opportunities. “I want to make it more community oriented. If I can, I want to work with other groups, and collaborate. I don’t know how much of that I’m going to do in the first year, because there’s so much going on, but that’s my goal.”
Both Wortham and Wind would like to see Monument City Music’s mission refined and given greater focus this year and in coming years. “We’ve had this mission statement for a number of years: to educate, entertain, inspire, and unite our communities,” Wortham says. “That’s been sort of broad and generic, and we’re trying to refocus.” Wind has similar goals. “I’m trying to figure out what that really means, and what communities we’re uniting. If you don’t have a very specific niche, then it’s hard to figure out what it is that we as a community group believe in. It’s really hard to find supporters if [they] don’t know what [you] believe in.”
Wortham has high hopes for the refinement process, and expects to see positive results. “I think it’s going to help focus our concerts, our marketing, our approach to everything we do, so that it’s more purposeful,” he says. “I’m excited to see what’s going to come of that. It’s a conversation that’s long overdue. We’ve been sort of content with the existing mission, and there’s beauty in it, but I think our mission could be greater than that.”
For now, though, the three ensembles under the Monument City Music banner are focusing on their 2017-2018 season. “We’ll be gearing up primarily for our holiday concert, that’s our first big shebang,” says Wortham. “The holidays are so stressful for people on so many levels–shopping, the chaos, family dynamics, the whole bit. We just want to give people a chance to escape and have their spirits lifted a little bit, get out of the chaos for a few moments.” This year’s holiday concert will feature the debut of The Noteables, as well as an extensive holiday-themed repertoire from both the Men’s and Women’s Choruses. “Then we’ll all join up for the last few songs in the program,” says Wortham. “Go out with a bang.”
As it has for the past few years, the Monument City Music holiday concert will take place at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church. “The church has been very supportive,” Wortham says. “They’re LGBTQ-friendly, so they’re kind to us, and we pay to tune the piano.” However, Wortham has a more ambitious desire for 2018′s holiday concert. “I’m hoping to move it to The Byrd next year,” he says. “We did our May concert at The Byrd and it was fantastic. We were behind that antique gold curtain while the organ was playing–we got Bob Gulledge to play. There was just this electricity waiting for the curtain to rise. When that curtain went up, we knew we were exactly where we were supposed to be.”
While both choruses have large ensembles–around 45 for the Richmond Men’s Chorus, and 25 to 30 for the Richmond Women’s Chorus–they are always looking for more people to join up. “Folks can join on at any time as long as there’s time for them to prepare for a concert,” says Wortham.
“My viewpoint is that singing is for everyone,” Wind says. “For me, not having auditions is really important. I think a lot of people don’t sing because they think they can’t, and they don’t realize it’s something that can be learned.”
Wortham has a similar take. “Audition’s sort of an aggressive word, it turns people off,” he says. “It’s really just a little vocal interview to say, do you match pitch? I test music reading ability, but it’s not a limiting factor. Many of the guys on the chorus don’t read music.”
The ensembles aren’t just looking to grow in numbers, either. “We’re eager to continue to grow as a chorus in size and our vocal strength, and our impact in the community,” says Wortham. “Our concerts are great, but we want to reach a larger audience, share our message and our music.”
Wind’s focus is slightly different, but she has the same ultimate goal. “I want to focus on what we sound like, how we can unify as a group and better communicate the message that we have. We do lack that connection a little bit, and I’m hoping with our new initiatives that that’s something we’ll be able to strengthen.”
With the strength of their resolve and the power of their voices, their success seems all but assured. Pay attention, Richmond–Monument City Music is ready to take center stage.