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This Song Cycle Is Coming to an End

After 14 years as music director, Jon Bailey is leaving the Gay Men's Chorus to pursue composing and other interests.

March 18, 2001|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For 14 seasons, the lean, intense figure on the podium has been a constant in a time of change for the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. In July, music director Jon Bailey leaves an organization that, under his leadership, has nearly tripled in size--to 180 members--and become a major choral player not only locally, but nationally as well.

"We know when it is the right time to do something," Bailey says. "I could stay, and in many ways I would like to stay, but it's the right time for this. I've done what I came here to do."

During Bailey's tenure the chorus has self-produced eight CDs, and its artistic reach has grown prodigiously. The ensemble has performed a distinguished body of new music--much of which it commissioned--for the venerable medium of male chorus.

A sampling of this repertory makes up the first half of "Songs of Pride and Joy" on Saturday and next Sunday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The Los Angeles premiere of David Conte's choral symphony "EOS"--commissioned by the Boston Gay Men's Chorus and premiered in March 2000--caps the concerts.

"The first half is a retrospective of music written in the last 10 to 12 years, mostly for this chorus," Bailey says. " 'EOS' is highly rhythmic--almost Stravinsky-ish--yet quite lyrical: It lies beautifully for voice. Its arc of text is all about time, transforming time."

Not surprising in this context, the arc of time was very much at the center of a recent conversation with Bailey in his office at the chorus' modest West Hollywood headquarters. Raised as a minister's kid in the Midwest, Bailey had no idea that music was actually a career possibility when a concert conducted by Robert Shaw fired him with a passion for choral music.

"It must have been the late 1950s or early 1960s," Bailey recalls. "Robert Shaw was in Chicago, conducting Britten's 'Rejoice in the Lamb.' I was just smitten by the sound, and the connection between words and music and between Shaw and the singers."

Getting from there to the helm of the Gay Men's Chorus was hardly a direct journey, however. Bailey entered Northwestern University outside Chicago as a philosophy major, although he cites singing Bach weekly with the Chapel Choir there as a profound experience and influence. He took two years off, hitchhiking around the world and living in Australia, and completed a theology degree before concentrating on music and finding a comfortable niche in academia.

He did his doctoral work at Stanford University, and then moved north to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory. There, as dean of faculty, he was perceptive enough to hire a young John Adams. Bailey also taught at Yale, conducting the Concert Choir and New Haven Chorale, before joining the faculty at Pomona College in 1982.

Bailey had been at Pomona for several years and was embroiled in a personal struggle when he first heard of the fledgling Gay Men's Chorus, which had been founded in 1979.

"I did not come out until I was 42," Bailey says. "I was married with kids and seeing a counselor who told me about this gay men's chorus, which he thought might be perfect for me. I just shuddered at the thought."

With his personal situation resolved, in 1986, he did take the opportunity to guest conduct the ensemble, substituting for founder Jerry Carlson, who had been diagnosed with AIDs and had taken a sabbatical. When it became clear that Carlson was dying, the chorus board offered the position to Bailey who, after some internal flip-flops, finally accepted the part-time job, beginning in 1988.

"That first concert that I did with them had been very fulfilling," Bailey recalls. "When I came, there were about 65 people in the chorus, a ragtag band of musicians at the beginning of the AIDs crisis. Their purpose was indeed musical, but it was also an important social outlet.

"Their musical content was consciously gay, with a high degree of camp, and the audience was primarily gay. It was not a bad chorus in any sense, and the repertoire had a certain sophistication. They did a Whitman cantata composed by Ned Rorem the year before I came."

For all of his broad academic experience, this was a new world for Bailey.

"I had never conducted a men's chorus before and I never had a group that talked about production values; I thought, you just put on a tux and stand up and sing," he says.

Bailey learned quickly, however, and the chorus has thrived under his leadership, becoming one of the premier volunteer choirs in the country. It has sung at Carnegie Hall, the White House and on a groundbreaking tour of Russia. The chorus presents three programs a season at the Alex Theatre--the last one under Bailey comes in July, a Sondheim concert. (Which was another lesson for Bailey, who knew nothing of Sondheim when he began work with the chorus.)

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