“It’s dangerous to tell someone how to ‘feel’ about a particular piece of music. So we won’t tell you how you should feel about this performance of ‘I Am Harvey Milk,'” wrote Dr. Rebecca Gruber, Artistic Director and Conductor of the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus, in her introductory program note to Andrew Lippa‘s oratorio performed this last weekend at Sheslow Auditorium on the Drake University campus. This has me thinking about the intersection of social justice and musical performance. What does it take to be a cultural warrior raising the torch for equality – no matter the zip code? It takes the forethought, commitment, and action to tell our stories. The commitment to tell all of our stories. The Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus along with Dr. Gruber and the three soloists Andrew Ryker, Katy Lindhart, and Joshua Bartemes didn’t tell me how to “feel” about the work. Much like the true luminary they heralded, Harvey Milk, they invited me to a heartfelt and authentic experience.
Andrew Ryker, current faculty at Drake University, performed as the adult Harvey Milk with an immediate charm in both vocal and physical characterization. His voice bloomed easily displaying comfort with both musical theatre and classical styles during his elegant “You Are Here.” Although the soloists were mic’d, certain timbres from the instrumental ensemble seemed to force a few instances of pushing with the voice. His moments on stage with the young Harvey Milk, performed by Joshua Bartemes, were sweetly endearing. Ryker continued to draw the audience in over the course of the whole evening with his sincerity and sensitivity to the text and vocal line.
The soprano soloist, Katy Lindhart, also demonstrated a beautiful legato line without sacrificing a moment of text clarity especially in her emotional “Was I Wrong?” Lindhart put her musical theatre chops on display with the energetic and effervescent “Leap.”
The men of the DMGMC flaunted their usual fun-loving physicality (replete with club boys during “Friday Night In The Castro.” Kudos belong both to composer Andrew Lippa and Dr. Gruber for understanding that this score needs to have life and fun.) but with an elevated commitment to beautiful singing. From the ominous text painting in “I Am The Bullet” to the impressive unison singing in “San Francisco,” the chorus was a pleasure to hear on Saturday evening.
The power in the score is the intensifying nature that really begins during the broken leg waltz feeling in “Sticks and Stones.” To hear the first tenors sing out, “God hates fags” over the texture of the rest of the voices absolutely pierced the heart. However, it is the relentless climb from that dark moment to the jubilant final chorus singing “Come out! To your cops, to your doctors, to the places you spend money, to your god, to your teachers, to your friends, to your parents, to your neighbors, to your sons, to your daughters, to yourselves! Come out to yourselves!” that makes this work so emotional and important.