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Preaching From the Choir 

The Portland Gay Men's Chorus is bringing love back to town

It wasn't that long ago that Rick Jung wasn't involved with the Portland Gay Men's Chorus at all. But after a particular night surfing YouTube while living in Denver, he knew he wanted to be.

"The Portland Gay Men's Chorus posted ["Sure on This Shining Night"], a song that I had always wanted to sing," Jung says. "It's just an amazing piece. And that they could pull it off was very impressive to me."

Jung says that focus on musicality as much as on identity was a rare and special thing that truly impressed him. He decided right then and there that if he ever moved to Portland, he would have to join.

So a little more than a year ago he did just that.

And then five weeks ago, he was hired as PGMC's executive director, no small thing for a Colorado kid. First off, the chorus has more than 160 singing members and more than 200 volunteers, which is a pretty deep bench. And also because Jung is the organization's first E.D. in a decade.

"There comes a time when a chorus becomes so big that volunteers can't run it anymore," says Jung. "We've hit that benchmark. So it's all good."

The size includes that massive roster, a growing budget, a variety of community outreach programs, and of course, performances of the type that will bring the PGMC to Bend to perform at the Sanctuary, First Presbyterian Church on Saturday, September 19, its first visit to Oregon's high desert in 10 years.

"We try to get all over the state," says Jung. "And sometimes it just comes down to scheduling. Our assistant director realized we hadn't been to Bend in awhile, and made a consistent effort to get there this year."

Besides just trying to spread the love, Jung says the gap in Bend performances has to do with the logistical difficulty of coordinating the chorus, which rather than having a small, elite road team, invites all its singing members to attend each out-of-town gig.

"I think we're looking at 80-90 [singers] for the Bend trip," says Jung.

But Jung says it's worth it, schlepping that many vocalists around the state because of the positive impact on culture.

"We're an agent of change," says Jung. "We've sung in smaller communities where we haven't been welcomed initially, but once we do, the community becomes more welcoming and we do see a change. Now we get good turnouts because people want to come to see us perform."

That missionary paradigm goes back to the chorus's very founding, a decade after the Stonewall Riots in New York. Founded in 1980, the PGMC was the nation's fourth chorus, just after San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City gay choruses.

"There was an opportunity that was visible to make a cultural impact," says Jung. "Choral music was a way to do that."

Jung says that the form allowed the LGBT community not just greater visibility, but a way to express the journey and issues they face in a manner that people can relate to, because, as Jung believes, "everyone likes music." That gave normies an in to better understand issues like the AIDS epidemic, marriage discrimination, and even the existential struggle of trying to understand one's own gender or lack thereof.

Jung says the Eastern Oregon rodeo capitol, Pendleton, was one those hard-sell communities.

"The first time we performed there, the posters were torn down and they weren't even sure people would show up," he says. "Now hundreds of people show up, and they hosted a luncheon for us the last time and the community is really excited about our performances."

For Jung, that means an opportunity for the LGBT community to share its stories and struggles, and especially to give hope to struggling youth.

"We help serve as a role model for young people to show that it's not all bad," says Jung. "It may be tough, being closeted, or being a gay kid in high school, but hey, it gets better."

The choral outreach has been so effective at connecting with people that they've spread across the globe. Jung says he just heard about a new gay chorus in Beijing. But there is one problem with that strategy, though it's the best kind of problem an advocacy and outreach organization like the PGMC could hope to have.

"We've done such a great job of expressing and growing the community, that we're now asking how do we continue to grow?" says Jung.

With marriage equality now the law of the land in the US, and the fight against AIDS now out of the shadows, Jung says the group is working to illuminate issues like workplace discrimination, which is still legal in 27 states.

It's not all politics, though. The Bend performance is a return of one of PGMC's most popular programs, a selection of songs from ABBA and Queen, which includes a wide variety of costume changes and dance numbers.

"It's just one of these shows that everyone loves, and sometimes it's good to do something that everyone loves," says Jung. "If they could, they would make us do it every year. Fortunately, we don't."

Wondering just how fabulous the show might be? The chorus just sold out Portland's massive Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall two nights in a row, something Jung attributes to the chorus's commitment to compelling original compositions and unique interpretations.

"We take music seriously," he says.

And he wants to make sure the chorus continues taking music seriously for a long time to come.

"We're starting our 36th season," says Jung. "It's a great time to look at the future and say, what's the next 35 years going to bring?"

Hopefully, more than just three trips to Bend.

Portland Gay Men's Chorus presents ABBAQueen

Saturday, Sept. 19

First Presbyterian Church,

230 NE 9th St., Bend


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