“Music builds a bridge
It can tear down a wall
Music is a language
That can speak to one and all”
— From “Why We Sing” by Greg Gilpin
At the start of a recent Wednesday night rehearsal of the Long Island Gay Men’s Chorus, Jeanette Cooper asked the group to rise, line up and rub the shoulders of the guy in front.
“We don’t just sing with our voices, we sing with our bodies,” explained Cooper, artistic director of the chorus. “It releases the tension of the day.”
As they’ve done weekly since January, the 18-member chorus met for two hours in an upstairs chapel of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in East Northport, rehearsing for a June concert series, timed for Pride Month.
Celebrating the chorus’ 15th anniversary this year, the men will sport a rainbow of polo shirts during the three-concert series. Titled “Why We Sing!,” the concerts will include songs culled from their decade-and-a-half repertoire, featuring 16 musical numbers, including three medleys, plus an encore of the ballad “Why We Sing.” And, as at all their concerts, commemorative “Gaybills” — their playbills — will be available.
“This concert celebrates the impact music has on the LGBTQ+ community, as it has on the members of the LIGMC for the past 15 years,” said chorus president Brad Meek, 77, of Port Jefferson.
United by song
Searching for a sense of connection four years ago is what led Stephen Antonacci to the chorus.
“I recently came out, and I was trying to find communities in the LGBT community, and I love to sing,” said Antonacci, 33, who lives in Oceanside and is unemployed.
A former high school and college music theater performer, Antonacci is trying to recruit new members to the chorus’ roster.
“We need more people,” he said. “I hope it expands and grows.”
The chorus ebbs and flows over time, said Meek, a 12-year member who has a degree in music education and taught piano and organ and who works part-time for Ace Hardware.
Grateful that the chorus survived the pandemic — it went back to holding concerts in the fall and winter of 2021 — Meek said, “I think the success is that it appeals to a wide range of talent and ages, from 77 to 20. Just the respect for each other and the love for singing — you can see that in the group. They really just care about each other.”
After all the hours of practicing and preparing for concerts, there’s definitely a sense of satisfaction when concertgoers appreciate the music, notes Darnell Tyson, who grew up singing in church choirs and is the chorus’ newest member, having signed up in September.
“One of the things I really like about music in general is that it’s a good unifier,” said Tyson, 48, who works for the Suffolk County Department of Public Works and resides in Dix Hills. “You can just listen to it and be moved. Without knowing somebody, you can reach out and connect with them.”
The men also connect with concertgoers by regaling them with personal stories between songs: relating why they sing with the group, who inspired them and sharing other heartfelt testimonials.
“Not only do they make a beautiful noise, but they’re so engaging. You can see it in the faces of the audience,” Cooper said.
Above all, notes Cooper, singing is the bridge linking the men to one another and to the public.
“They’re communicating through music,” she said.
Acknowledging the importance of having different outlets to express yourself and to develop community, president and founder of the LGBT Network of Hauppauge, David Kilmnick, who is not a member of the chorus, said, “To be able to have a chorus like the one we have here on Long Island provides that unique opportunity that accomplishes both. Especially given today’s world, where expression of being yourself through arts is being challenged and banned in some places, we shouldn’t take these things for granted.”
A hotel human resources director, McCarthy, 56, of Port Washington, always had the desire to sing, but had never done so in public until he was accepted into the chorus eight years ago with the proviso that he take voice lessons.
“That’s all I had to hear,” McCarthy said during rehearsal. “I got some voice lessons and I’ve developed and developed, and I really enjoy it. I did a solo last week — and it’s the best one I’ve ever done! Jeanette calls me the engine that could because she’s seen me grow.”
One of the newer members, Ken Brussel, 42, an information technology manager who lives in Lindenhurst, decided to join the group after attending the Christmas 2021 concert.
“I said, ‘These guys sound pretty good, I’d like to join them,’ ” said Brussel, adding, “I have a good time with what I sing. I like the guys that are here. There’s a good camaraderie among the group.”
For Paul Ferrante, who’s been a member of various choirs since seventh grade and joined the chorus a year ago, singing is a great stress reliever.
“It’s been a great mixture of doing something that I love and taking time out of my own day and my own schedule to ground myself, but also have a connection with incredible men who support me as who I am,” said Ferrante, 29, an assistant director for Hofstra University’s Greek life who lives in Glen Cove. “And, through them, I’ve been able to learn a lot more about myself.”
The choir has pushed Ferrante to go outside his comfort zone, like when he did first solo with the chorus last fall.
“I would never have done that five years ago,” Ferrante said. “So, it’s really helped me a lot, in so many capacities.”
A chorus begins
Fifteen years ago, Carlos Serrano and Jim Collier, both members of mixed-gender, gay-friendly Long Island choruses, saw a video of the Turtle Creek Chorale, a Dallas gay men’s chorus, and decided they wanted to create something similar on the Island.
They enlisted Joe Barone, a music teacher and choral director at West Babylon High School who at the time was involved with local gay softball and bowling leagues, to conduct.
“I definitely thought it was a very important cause,” Barone said. “It’s about a sense of camaraderie. It’s about the type of music that you can do,” he said, adding that a men’s chorus has a whole different sound from a mixed-gender one.
After putting out a call for singers on Facebook, the trio set up auditions, ending up with an 18-member troupe, which rehearsed at West Babylon High School.
“We started in the late summer, and our goal was to have a Christmas concert,” said Mike Conley, the chorus’ only original member.
At that inaugural Christmas concert in 2008, they performed at the Staller Center for the Arts as the second act to Stony Brook University’s Camerata Singers. The following year, they participated in their first spring Pride concert at the Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bay Shore and, over the years, have appeared at Riverhead’s Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, the Adelphi University Performing Arts Center and Suffolk County Community College’s Van Nostrand Theatre, among other venues.
“What’s stayed the same is the commitment to a quality singing experience,” said Conley, 56, an executive assistant at a printing company who resides in Selden. “It’s not just guys singing. We do our best to produce a very thematic and impactful show.”
Recent concert themes have included a parody of “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” for last year’s holiday shows. Last spring, the theme was travel, and it featured songs like “Route 66.” Another year, with love as the theme, they sang soulful ballads like the ’60s hit “Cherish” by The Association.
Members come and go, though a core group of about 10 men have stayed with the chorus for years, which helps maintain continuity. Directors, who also come and go — Cooper is the chorus’ fourth — set the tone for the group.
“It’s their job to pick the music and to help us understand the complexities and bring out the best of the music, and still meet with the members’ sensibilities,” Conley said.
In addition to running rehearsals, Cooper records herself singing the parts to help the members, some of whom don’t read music.
“They’ll know how I’m thinking about the piece, whether to get louder or to get softer, to sing it in a certain style,” explained Cooper, 64, who lives in Yaphank. “It reinforces what I do at rehearsal.”
A vocalist herself, Cooper knows the many challenges chorus members face.
“I try to give them all the tools that I can to help them be confident and secure in what they’re doing,” said Cooper, who is also the accompanist for the North Shore Chamber Choir.
Taking an egalitarian approach to directing, Cooper always seeks input from the choristers.
“I like to think that I have a vision for the chorus, but I don’t like to think that it’s solely my vision, that we kind of do it together,” she said.
After breathing and vocal exercises to warm up the men’s vocal cords and train their ears for tonality and harmony, Cooper, accompanying them on piano, leads them through “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Let The River Run,” “Never My Love” and the rest of the concert’s lineup. The men sing with and without the aid of sheet music, and Cooper gives them notes after they sing in different voice combinations or in unison.
During the concerts, Meek said, the group sings strictly from memory, which helps to create a better sound.
“If you don’t have anything to look at, you’re looking at the audience and you can see their reaction, that they’re liking the music, that they’re enjoying the show,” Brussel said. “So, it kind of makes you smile, too.”
Throughout the year, the men maintain a busy rehearsal and performance schedule. In addition to the spring concert series, there are two holiday shows in December, two shows at the VFW in Sayville — a variety show with several soloists in the fall and a cabaret with drag performers in April. The group will also kick off the June 17 Pride parade in Northport.
Calling the men “a joy to work with,” Cooper, who began as an accompanist in 2007 and was appointed conductor four years ago, said, “I know that they probably commit four or five hours a week for practicing to get ready for rehearsal — and that’s amazing! And they’re so collegial: If someone’s having difficulty memorizing, they break off into smaller groups to help each other. They are impressive on so many levels.”
For his part, Barone, 58, who now lives in Wilton Manors, Florida, and works in property management and real estate, is delighted that the chorus is still alive and well.
“It’s so nice to see that it’s still going strong and that the tradition is being carried on,” Barone said.
Adds Meek, “Fifteen years is a good run, and to see it still remaining strong and still drawing our audience and feeling the support of the community is a wonderful thing.”
- Friday, June 9, 8 p.m. at St. Francis Episcopal Church, 1692 Bellmore Ave., North Bellmore
- Saturday, June 10, 8 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook, 380 Nicholls Rd., East Setauket
- Next Sunday, June 11, 7 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 12 Prospect St., Huntington
Tickets to all shows are $25. For online sales, visit ligmc.org
A free concert will also be held at 7 p.m. June 16 at Middle Country Library, 101 Eastwood Blvd. in Centereach. Registration is required, Visit bit.ly/3qdBO2R.