If something can declare itself an institution after 30 years of entertaining people, the Portland Gay Men's Chorus can certainly do it.
In its 30th season, PGMC is still going strong with an all-time high in membership. A highlight of the concert schedule will be the ABBA/Queen tribute March 19-21 at the Kaul Auditorium at Reed College, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd. On June 19, as part of the Gay Pride Northwest festival, the chorus performs with the Heartland Men's Chorus of Kansas City at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, while also returning the favor and singing in Missouri.
The Tribune caught up with one of the group's pivotal members, production manager David Peterson, 41, a home stager by profession who has been with PGMC for four years and previously with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles:
Tribune: You're at an all-time high for membership?
Peterson: Yes, 140 guys are singing in this show, and it looks like we have 154 members. Most of the turnover seems to happen from people unable to perform, people have to move because of work or life or schedule changes. Most of the turnover I see happening comes from basically circumstance.
Tribune: It's still one of the biggest gay men's choruses in the country, huh?
Peterson: We have one of the larger ones, but certainly not the largest. Seattle Men's Chorus, I think, has about 250 members. Turtle Creek Chorale in Texas is about the same size. And the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles has more. … We're at a pretty good number now, it's manageable. The organization has grown quite a bit over the past few years.
Tribune: There was a time when gay men's choruses were hit hard by HIV and AIDS; medications have helped stem the loss of life and degree of illness for HIV and AIDS patients, so chorus members are generally healthier?
Peterson: I've never had to deal with it, personally, and I wasn't with the chorus at that time, but I would say the medical field has progressed and I don't know of anyone that has passed away, HIV- or AIDS-related, since I've been here.
Tribune: And, in these tougher economic times for choral groups, PGMC has been doing OK?
Peterson: Yes, fiscally, we're a very fortunate non-profit organization. We're very healthy from a financial standpoint. Our board has done a good job of managing the budget, staying fiscally responsible. When we look at it compared to other non-profits, we're fortunate, our audiences are strong and loyal. We planned two nights for (ABBA/Queen) and we had to add a third night, which looks like it'll be sold out.
Tribune: Tell us about the ABBA/Queen show.
Peterson: We have about 22 songs, half ABBA, half Queen. Most people's favorites are going to be in there: 'Mamma Mia' and 'Dancing Queen' (from ABBA), 'Somebody To Love' and 'We Are The Champions' (from Queen). It's going to be a real fun night, not only because of the music, but because there's an element of a costume contest in the show, asking audience members to dress up in '70s attire. It'll also have a little play, with five actors, where we weave all the songs together; it'll be like our own 'Mammi Mia' (skit). We also have the 12-member subgroup 'Cascade' and a dance group, and there'll be a full rock band with us as accompaniment.
Tribune: What's it like to choreograph 140 singers?
Peterson: We have four parts - bass, baritone, tenor 1 and tenor 2 - and this concert features counter tenors for high parts, a high alto/soprano range, more of a women's range. We have rehearsal every Monday, section rehearsals, rehearsal CDs for guys to listen to and learn and memorize at home. All of our concerts are 100 percent memorized. For this concert, we started rehearsing Jan. 18.
Tribune: Does PGMC represent the gay community, or serve as more of an adjunct?
Peterson: The chorus represents the gay community in that there is every different type of person in it - working professionals, students, guys with families and kids, retirees, and all different kinds of professions. Our group is very mission-oriented, it's what our concerts are based on, what our outreach is based on. With this concert, we're doing outreach at Spirit Mountain Casino on April 24, and all the money made at the door will go to a local nonprofit, a food bank.
Tribune: What's the age range in the chorus?
Peterson: From 19 to over 70.
Tribune: Thirty years as an active group is a long time …
Peterson: I believe it's the fourth oldest gay identified chorus in the U.S. (behind San Francisco, L.A. and New York). I know of some founding members, including Gary Coleman. He sings tenor 2, and he's also heading up our big archival project, putting together all the materials accumulated from the past 30 years - programs, recordings, photos, articles.
Tribune: Is your audience mostly from the gay community?
Peterson: It's a really wide spectrum. Our holiday show has become a real big Portland tradition. Everybody comes to our show. Our group can appeal to a wide range, it's not just people who preach to the choir, so to speak.