Boston's Gay Men's Chorus' finds pride and prejudice in Turkey

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Aaron Schachter: I’m Aaron Schachter and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. A local choir is currently on a 10-day tour of the Middle East. No big deal, right? But this isn’t just any choir. The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is considered, you know, controversial in some parts of the world. In fact, the venue in Istanbul where the choir was to perform cancelled under pressure from anti-gay opponents. I caught up with the choruses music director, Reuben Reynolds, before the tour began. He told me it’s not the first time they’ve run into trouble.


Reuben Reynolds: We sang in Prague and in Berlin, where we sang for 500,000 people, and then we went to Poland where we were picketed by the Catholic church and they tried to cancel the concert. And we had a wonderful experience that day. I spent the entire day doing interviews with newspapers from all over Poland while there were riot police outside trying to contain the people who were protesting. And the next morning, after a wonderful sold-out concert, almost every newspaper in Poland had the same headline: “Music Triumphs Over Injustice.” So I thought going there and learning about the people was the single most important thing that we had done on that tour, to somehow use our music to break down barriers and learn more about what those cultural barriers are and how we can change them.


Schachter: Now, when you go on tours like this, are you being provocative? What are you looking for in the Middle East?


Reynolds: What we’re looking in to do in the Middle East is what we always do: we tell our stories; we sing stories of our lives.


Schachter: Do you pick particular songs for particular places?


Reynolds: It depends on the venue we’re in. We’re doing several outdoor concerts that will be a lot more upbeat, dancey, fun things--Madonna, Imagine Dragons, and that kind of thing. In the indoor venues, we do quieter pieces. We are doing a premiere of a piece. It’s called “Peace.”


[Excerpt from a song]


Reynolds: What we wanted to do is talk about what peace is to us instead of saying what peace should be to everyone else. So we have a young composer from Minnesota, Joshua Shank, who wrote a piece for us based on texts by the Men’s Chorus members. We asked everyone in the chorus to complete the sentence “I was at peace when... “ as many times as they wanted and we got hundreds of responses, everything from “I was at peace when I told my mother I was gay,” “I was at peace when I stopped drinking and became sober”; wonderful, heart-wrenching things. And he’s created this ten-minute piece with words of the chorus talking about what gives us peace.


[Excerpt from a song]


Reynolds: So the idea is that we are singing our stories and telling people about us, breaking down barriers that they might think about us. But we want to get to know people.


[Excerpt from a song]


Schachter: Stories of this trip so far have mentioned the fact that the venue in Istanbul canceled your performance and that was, I presume, because of protests. Istanbul is a less tolerant place now than even just a few years ago, or so it seems.


Reynolds: You’re absolutely right. We got tons of press over there immediately when we announced what was going on and we were working with partners in the community there to put this concert on. And The Zorlu Center was ecstatic to have us until there was a backlash and a lot conservative press about this “deviant group of homosexuals coming over here to try and change our good Islamic people.” So for political reasons they pulled out of it. What was amazing to me is the number of places we had immediately offering, saying “Come sing with us instead.” So we’re actually going to be performing in a college, in a big outdoor plaza with an amphitheatre, and I think it’s going to be a really special concert.


Schachter: You’re also traveling to Jerusalem. Are you worried about any problems there?


Reynolds: No. One of the things we’ve done is we’ve done cultural training for the guys in the chorus to talk about how to respect traditions, how not to go be an angry American tourist but rather to learn to listen and observe what’s going on. I like to think that we will come back much more changed by this than we will have changed anyone in the world. For us, I see this as a real way to understand what the problems are and why people feel the way they feel. I mentioned the piece, “Peace,” that Josh had written for us, and one of the things that we’re doing is we’ll be creating, over the next year, a new piece of music using that as the first movement and the rest of it will be based on our experiences in the Mid. East. We have no idea yet what that will be. We want it to be an organic outgrowth of this whole experience.


Schachter: That’s pretty cool. Reuben, thank you so much.


Reynolds: Thank you for having me here.


Schachter: Reuben Reynolds is director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. They are now on tour of the Middle East.