Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the May 30, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

When is it Art, When Politics?

Even if the name New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus registers

fleetingly, its components make an uneven impact. The term "New

Jersey" recedes. The word "Chorus" draws back. And the

"Gay Men’s" reference advances, bearing implications of

political

engagement and political activism. Nobody knows this better than

Richard

Loatman, artistic director of the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus (NJGMC).

"By our title we seem like a political organization," Loatman

says in a telephone interview from his Trenton home. "When I took

over the directorship three years ago, I decided we would concentrate

more on musical and performing aspects, rather than on being a latent

political organization."

Loatman’s perspective represents a shift from the stewardship of his

predecessor Jay Kawarsky, founding artistic director of the NJGMC,

who led the chorus when it changed its name from Delaware Valley Men’s

Chorus in 1996. "At first the `G’ word was left out," Kawarsky

told U.S. 1 (March 19, 1997), "but it became clear that every

time we sing, it is a political statement. We decided that we might

as well bring it right out."

In contrast, Loatman says, "When the need arises, we are ready

to perform at functions where our political issues are at stake. But

we try to see ourselves primarily as a service organization. We have

performed in church services, and for organizations that have nothing

to do with the gay community. We just did a fundraiser for Enable

at the Princeton Hyatt to benefit people with disabilities. Outreach

helps us to be more visible throughout the state; we perform for free.

This year we chose March and April as our outreach months."

The NJGMC celebrates its 10th anniversary with a program entitled

"Looking Back, Moving Forward" on Saturday, June 2, at 8 p.m.,

in Princeton’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Joseph Paparella, a Trenton

native currently touring with the musical "Ragtime," is the

guest vocalist in selections from Bernstein and Sondheim musicals.

Featured selections draw from traditional tunes, music of the last

two centuries, and from Broadway musicals. Artistic director Loatman

shares the podium with assistant conductor Kenneth Howard, who has

been a member of the chorus since its inception. The three-dozen

member

chorus is accompanied by pianist Timothy Brown, and by a 23-member

orchestra. The anniversary program includes music featuring brass

instruments and a movement from Schumann’s Piano Quintet. A silent

auction takes place at 7 p.m.

Assistant conductor Howard’s particular bailiwick is the eight to

ten-member chamber ensemble of the NJGMC. "Ken goes all the way

back to the beginning of the chorus. He maintains a certain history

while I mold the sound of the chorus," says Loatman. "We sit

down and divvy up the pieces to be programmed. If it’s a very large

work, I take that. It’s amicable. Each of us brings something special

to rehearsals and performances."

Born in Bridgeton, New Jersey in 1947, Loatman grew up in a family

consisting of four boys and one girl. "My mother was the musician

of the family," he says. "She was the organist in church,

and encouraged me to sing in the choir." Loatman’s mother, now

in her 70s, has played in church since she was 13. She was his first

piano teacher. He started both piano and church choir participation

at age five. Loatman’s father, now dead, had a sixth grade education.

"He worked at DuPont in Wilmington and managed homes and

apartments

as a caretaker," Loatman says. "He was an avid watcher of

and listener to the news. He could argue on any subject. His lack

of education was not a problem like it would be today."

At Westminster Choir College Loatman majored in music education with

emphasis in piano. He became a member of Westminster’s 40-voice

touring

choir during his senior year. "Although I sang," he says,

"I didn’t know that I was going to make the touring choir. I was

invited to join the choir because I was a good pianist. Once I got

there, I changed my opinion of myself as a singer and as a conductor,

and switched from piano to voice."

At Westminster Loatman’s hero was George Linn, then Westminster’s

artistic director. "There was no graduate school at Westminster

at the time," Loatman remembers, "and there were only two

choirs, of which the touring choir was the more select one. Linn

looked

like a coal miner, but when he got in front of the choir, his whole

persona would change. There was a delicacy and fluidity to his

conducting.

He left in 1969 when I graduated."

During the course of his generation-long career Loatman has directed

more than 75 productions at Rider College, the Pennington Players,

Princeton Community Players, Mercer College, Lawrence High School,

and Bristol Riverside Theater, among others. For 23 years, until 2000,

he held the post of Minister of Music at the First Presbyterian Church

of Dutch Neck. At present he teaches vocal music to children from

kindergarten to third grade in Lawrence’s Eldridge Park School. We

spoke on the eve of a performance by his kindergartners and first

graders. Their program was to consist primarily of unison songs, and

what Loatman called "some movement, approaching dance." By

the time Loatman’s students reach second and third grade, his musical

demands on them increase. The older children’s June 6 program includes

canons, two-and three-part music, and partner songs (two independent

songs that fit together, e.g., "Yankee Doodle" and

"Dixie"

sung simultaneously).

In addition to his school affiliation, Loatman teaches

both piano and voice privately. Out of his 40 private students, 10

are pianists.

Loatman joined the NJGMC four years ago on a whim. "I never really

liked the sound of men’s choruses for most of my career," he says.

"I thought they sounded like barber shop quartets and had a less

than legitimate sound. But after I heard a concert of the Chorus at

Trenton’s Trinity Cathedral I decided to join. I joined simply to

have the opportunity to sing. I wanted to just sing and not have to

call the shots. I wanted to do music with which I was not acquainted

before." About a year after joining the Chorus Loatman was

appointed

artistic director.

"I’ve changed the sound of the chorus to a richer more vibrant

sound, rather than a diffused light tone," Loatman says. "Even

though this chorus is not a group of trained musicians, we have one

of the most interesting sounds of any group that I’ve conducted. It’s

homogeneous and pleasing. It’s a passionate sound. Many groups are

precise and clean to the point of being sterile. I don’t know if would

be better conducting professional musicians because then each one

would have their own particular ideas about how music should go and

how the choral sound should go. This untutored group achieves a

monumental

sound. They’re non-professionals enjoying themselves when they’re

singing. Nothing is routine for them."

In selecting members for the chorus, Loatman follows a welcoming

philosophy.

"Each potential member is auditioned to find out what their

abilities

are," he says. "If someone seems not to have the ability to

keep up with the chorus, or if they can’t keep their pitch, we suggest

private lessons or tutoring, or we suggest that they sit in on

rehearsals,

and not perform in concert. We’re not trying to be exclusionary. We

don’t want just hot-shot singers. We have some people who don’t read

music, but they’ve learned how to manage. If people have a reedy tone

that’s nasal or pinched, or if they have a breath-y tone without much

center, their voice sticks out in a chorus. All of these problems

can be fixed. My job is to lead chorus members to the place where

we want the homogeneous tone to be. It’s the rare person that we don’t

accept."

"You don’t have to be gay to join," Loatman says. "If

a person feels comfortable they’re welcome." In his association

with the NJGMC Loatman has had no direct confrontation with

homophobia.

"If somebody walked in off the street, they would have no way

of knowing that this is a gay organization except for the name of

the group." Probably for Loatman the ideal path of evolution for

the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus would be one where the most compelling

component of its name was "Men’s Chorus" and the word

"Gay"

evoked nothing more vivid than a yawn.

— Elaine Strauss

Looking Back, Moving Forward , NJ Gay Men’s Chorus,

Trinity Episcopal Church, 33 Mercer Street, 609-396-7774. $20.

Saturday,

June 2, 8 p.m.

A decade of song to celebrate the ensemble’s 10th anniversary

featuring guest soloist is Broadway veteran Joseph Paparella who

performs

selections from Bernstein and Sondheim musicals. Repertoire includes

works of Franz Biebl, Randall Thompson, Gabriel Faure, Joseph M.

Martin,

and Lloyd Pfautsch, as well as popular fare and "The Battle Hymn

of the Republic." Pianist Timothy D. Brown and the 23-piece

Festival

Orchestra accompany the chorus. Silent auction. $20.


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