Original choral work focuses on the life of Midwestern gays

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Madison’s Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus and Milwaukee’s City of Festivals Men’s Chorus perform at PrideFest Milwaukee on June 9. The ensembles present the world premiere of Arthur Durkee’s “Heartlands” on June 16 at the Madison Masonic Center Auditorium and June 17 at Milwaukee’s Plymouth Church UCC. Details at www.perfectharmonychorus.org.

Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus, Madison’s gay and gay-friendly vocal performance group, is celebrating 15 years of singing together by showcasing the lives of its members in “Heartlands,” an original work by out composer Arthur Durkee.

Think of it as “Farm Boys” author will Fellows’ oral history of rural gay Midwestern men set to music.

“‘Heartlands’ was written primarily from personal stories given to me by men in the chorus,” says Durkee, a Madison-based “freelance creative” who, in addition to being a musician and composer, is also a writer, photographer and graphic designer. “I received a wealth of information on the stories of their lives, which I set to music in various styles.”

PHMC will premiere the 70-minute work in Madison and Milwaukee, on June 16 and 17, respectively. The City of Festivals Men’s Chorus, Milwaukee’s newest gay male ensemble, will add its voices to the work as well.

In addition, the two groups will perform at PrideFest on June 9.

“COFMC is our Milwaukee sibling chorus and is concluding its first season performing these joint concerts with us,” says artistic director Ken Forney. ”Bringing both of our choruses together builds community between the two groups and makes both of our voices stronger.”

“Heartlands” was composed for a male chorus and piano, with soloists on several of its 19 individual movements, says Durkee, who is a member of the Madison Music Collective, which promotes the performance of live, improvised music. Written for both amateur and professional voices, “Heartlands” features a few vocally challenging modern sections.

“While I was sorting through the material given me by the men of the chorus, several common threads emerged, as well as life stories that were of special interest,” Durkee says. “‘Heartlands’ became a weave of stories, with an emotional arc common to many gay men living in the Midwest.” Durkee’s composition has both artistic sensitivity and social credibility for the LGBT community, Forney says. By exploring the gay experience in settings where sexual orientation is often repressed, the chorus and the composer have captured the lives of a generation.

Part of PHMC’s mission is to build LGBT tolerance in smaller communities outside Madison. “Through ‘Heartlands’ we can share stories that ... can create change and promote acceptance of LGBT people,” Forney says.

“We recognize that Madison can often be seen as post-gay, so we reach out to people wherever we can be a catalyst for change,” he explains. “‘Heartlands’ definitely carries themes to which our rural neighbors can relate, and we’ll use it as a door-opener and to help us share our message.”

Durkee was a natural choice for the “Heartlands” commission, Forney says. He’d worked with the ensemble before. In 2009 he composed “Weavers of Light,” a celebration of the winter solstice for chorus, piano, flute and orchestral

bells. When the new commission came up, his selection was a foregone conclusion.

“Arthur had some advantages in that, first and foremost, we loved his music,” Forney says. “As someone who lives in Wisconsin, Arthur has greater access to us, important for collecting stories and collaborating on the end product.”

Durkee also will sing with the chorus during its premiere concerts and offer an audience talkback session after the June 16 Madison premiere.

The commission of  “Heartlands” represents a milestone in PHMC’s career and helps fulfill the mission of creating a permanent oratory that tells the LGBT story, Forney says.

“There is only a small collection of music that speaks to our stories, and you won’t find them at major music publishing houses,” Forney says. “LGBT history has not been taught in public schools, and our lives have not been well represented. Creating more music and supporting composers who are writing about our experience is a way of giving back to the larger community.”

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