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Lesbian/gay chorus director stepping down

by Michael Nugent

Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco artistic director<br>Billy Sauerland is stepping down next month. Photo: Michael Nugent
Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco artistic director
Billy Sauerland is stepping down next month. Photo: Michael Nugent  

Billy Sauerland, the artistic director of the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, is stepping down after the group's spring concert next weekend.

Founded in 1980, LGCSF is the oldest LGBT mixed choir in the country. Sauerland, 35, is a gay man who has been conducting the choir since January 2011. His departure marks a major transition for one of San Francisco's key LGBT music ensembles.

"Billy Sauerland brought passion for musical excellence, a frightening work ethic, and a wicked sense of humor to LGCSF," said Rachel Pokorny, the LGCSF board president. "His six years with the chorus were marked by many successful collaborations with artists and organizations throughout the Bay Area and innovative concerts honoring and celebrating the LGBTQ community. Billy will be missed by the singers, his co-workers, and the board of LGCSF."

Sauerland broke new ground as artistic director of the choir, which has 30 members and a budget of nearly $60,000.

"We worked really hard to make partnerships and created a lot of collaborative projects that we feel good about, with schools, other LGBT choirs, and performances in new venues," he said in an interview. "It's gotten us around the Bay Area. It's a good thing to be nimble and be mobile where you can be – and it's artistically fulfilling."

While retaining its historic name, the chorus has worked to expand its inclusivity.

"LGCSF is an organization with social justice and community at its heart," Sauerland said. "We have ensured the group is fully inclusive with bi, trans, and straight voices too. It is something to be proud of that we attract a wide variety of members – it's a hallmark of the ensemble."

Sauerland is leaving to focus on his education doctorate program in music at Columbia University, which he attends remotely, and to write his dissertation on the voices and experiences of trans singers.

He lives in Hayward with his husband, Tom Nelson, and is also the artistic director of the Chabot College Choir and the Oakland East Bay Gay Men's Chorus. Sauerland said the couple would continue to live there and that he would continue to direct those groups.

LGCSF is known for its untraditional concert formats; the choir's May concert "Here I Am: Living Authentically" will incorporate stories of LGBT people into the program.

"In a choir we give up our individual voice to create a bigger than life voice: we are the sum of the parts. In preparing for this concert, I was reading trans theory; one of the critiques of feminist and trans theory is that they are more holistic, rather than individually focused. So we decided to highlight individual experiences and voices," he said.

Sauerland asked for stories about LGBT identity on the chorus' email list, selecting nine submissions, which were each paired with a song.

One poignant song in the concert is "Would You Harbor Me?" by Ysaye Barnwell. Made famous by Sweet Honey in the Rock, it asks the listener to harbor diverse people including Muslims and someone living with HIV, then asks "would you harbor me, would I harbor you?"

The question also echoes the current creation of sanctuary cities across the country.

LGCSF's trans singers have been a major inspiration for Sauerland's doctoral dissertation, which is the first dissertation on the experience and practices of trans singers in private voice lessons, he said.

Sauerland is examining aspects of the transgender voice, how it is affected by hormones and gender transition, as well as the training process.

"As teachers we shape singers' artistry," he said. "Singing teachers are often conservatory based-master teacher and apprentice. This is difficult for many people, and especially for trans singers if the teacher doesn't understand, for example, how testosterone affects the voice, as well as how their voice is deeply tied to a trans person's identity."

Sauerland is a countertenor, singing music usually performed by female altos.

"Part of why I've been an advocate for diversity of voices and gender is because I'm singing in a 'female' range," he said. "My voice is a big part of my identity. In college, I was hired for a piece and the director put in the program that I was biologically male and that I wasn't castrated. Are people really that thrown off by a man singing in the treble clef they needed that?

"Why do we associate gender with specific voices?" he asked. "I felt conflicted growing up in Ohio because my voice and gender weren't accepted as being congruent. This dissertation is part of redefining gender norms and what they mean."

He said that he's an ally for trans people because of his personal experience.

"Trans people should be a voice for themselves," Sauerland said. "I hope to be a conduit for their voices, like the conductor for a choir."

 

"Here I Am: Living Authentically" takes place Saturday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 7 at 3 p.m., at Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco, 1300 Polk Street (at Bush Street). Tickets are $25 ($20 student/senior) and can be purchased at: http://lgcsf.org/livingauthentically.

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