Jack's Take: The gift of song through the years with SMC

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SMC Baritone Brothers Hairspray concert, June 2013 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky
SMC Baritone Brothers Hairspray concert, June 2013 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky

It all began in the Seattle Opera House on a warm summer night in June 1997. My housemate Stephe and I attended a concert of the Seattle Men's Chorus called We Are Family, a tribute to the music of the 1970s. I'm unsure if I'd ever seen the chorus perform in such a grand space until that evening. I was used to seeing the group sing a song or two following the Pride Parade, which at that time marched down Broadway and ended with a festival in Volunteer Park.

But that night something clicked for me.

A decade earlier, during a counseling session in which I grappled with coming out, my therapist (also named Jack) suggested I join the chorus. I was in my early twenties at the time and couldn't imagine associating with such a large, Gay-identified club. They all seemed so much older than I was. What if they hit on me? Isn't that what older Gay men did? They tried to seduce younger guys and get them into their clutches. I was full of all sorts of ideas and fears!

We Are Family SMC concert, June 1997 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky  

Ten years later, at We Are Family, I'd finally made peace with my sexuality. By the second half of the concert, Stephe and I were on our feet with more than three thousand other concertgoers, singing along to the soulful rhythms of Karen Carpenter, boogeying to the beat of the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, and delighting in the ballads and glam rock of Elton John. The joy and exhilaration of communing and crooning with that happy crowd stretched into my summer and finally convinced me I needed to reconsider my earlier hesitation.

The following year, when the chorus announced its new season would start at the newly opened Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, I decided to audition. At the time, the revered artistic director Dennis Coleman helmed the organization. I think he asked me to sing a verse of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" or "America the Beautiful" or some patriotic ditty, but I can't be sure. I must have passed muster, because before I knew it, I was attending rehearsals that fall for my first holiday show with SMC.

When I began, the chorus numbered about 125 men. We've since doubled in size. We rehearsed in two churches in downtown Seattle before moving to Seattle First Baptist Church during the pandemic. Twenty years ago, a companion sister organization, the Seattle Women's Chorus (SWC), came into existence, a welcome addition to our chorus family. In 2016, Dennis Coleman stepped down from as artistic director role, and the marvelous Paul Caldwell inherited the baton.

Chorus Pals, Holiday Show, 2018 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky  

This year I celebrate my 25th year singing with the chorus. I remain an upper baritone, though I've often wondered if I might aspire to become a lower tenor (maybe not). I marvel at the societal changes that have occurred over the time I've sung with SMC, such as the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy being replaced by open acceptance of Gays in the military; the domestic partner protections passed by the Washington state legislature replaced by marriage equality throughout all 50 states; and the devastating losses of Matthew Shepard, Tyler Clementi, and so many other youths at the hands of violence and bullying replaced with antibullying laws.

American society has shown a greater acceptance of its Gay citizens, but there is still much work to be done worldwide, because laws alone cannot change hearts. And sadly, there will always be backsliding. Attacks on Transgender youth and adults are rampant in many states. Women are again fighting long-won battles on reproductive health care. And Queer youth are being denied access to books that might help them understand their heart's desires, much less the ability to discuss those in a supportive classroom where a teacher isn't forbidden to even acknowledge there are Gay kids.

I have rediscovered the joy and value of the chorus the past couple of months, as we've rehearsed our latest concert, to be performed at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle on June 9 and 10. In commemoration of its centennial, the Walt Disney Company commissioned "Disney PRIDE in Concert," a celebration of LGBTQ life, love, family, and perseverance. Along with music from iconic films like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Mary Poppins, there are also songs from modern Disney classics like Coco and Frozen, plus tunes from the Disney Parks songbook.

As I commit or recommit these hope-filled and compassionate songs to memory, I'm reminded of how we all search for a place to call home, sometimes beyond where we grew up. Someplace out there that will accept us and love us for who we are, where we don't need to convince, prod, or please. Disney recognizes we live in a small world, that we are interconnected, and that someday we will learn to live with one another and let live.

Music changes hearts. I am grateful for the family I've found with my adopted SMC brothers (and SWC sisters) and look forward to another 25 years of musical delight and showmanship.

For tickets to SMC's "Disney PRIDE in Concert" on June 9 and 10, visit https://bit.ly/42PhseF

Jack Hilovsky is an author, actor, and blogger who has made his home in Seattle since 1986. His first book, RJ, Farrah and Me: A Young Man's Gay Odyssey from the Inside Out, was published in June 2022. It can be found at Elliott Bay Book Co., Madison Books, Nook & Cranny, University Bookstore, Pegasus Book Exchange, and Third Place Books (Seward Park).