Voices of Note is a nonprofit organization that governs the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus and Atlanta Women’s Chorus and is a “catalyst for social change.” The organization boasts the largest community music organization in the Southeast and strives to present concert experiences that inspire and deliver a message of equality through music. The Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus celebrates 42 years this 2023 season, and the Atlanta Women’s Chorus celebrates 10 years.
On March 25, Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus will present “Songs of the Phoenix,” a 14-movement commissioning project composed of multiple choruses, which features one of the most diverse collaborations of lyricists and composers in Western music, including the late Stephen Sondheim, Ingrid Michaelson, Michelle Li, Stephen Schwartz, and Siedah Garrett. There are ten choral arrangements and four spoken word pieces, each telling a unique story of overcoming adversity, celebrating diversity, and the joy of music. The concert will be held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Midtown and will be the first performance of “Songs of the Phoenix” on the East Coast.
Founded in 1981, AGMC made history as the first LGBTQ chorus in the South and the fifth in the world. Donald Milton III, the artistic director of AGMC, spoke with Georgia Voice about AGMC’s upcoming concert in March, his work with AGMC, and the fortitude of the group, emphasizing the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the performing arts.
“There were dark times,” he said. “No one was hit harder than the performing arts. Everything shut down, and so many arts organizations folded. Singing together was taken away. We did it on Zoom … It was better than not being together, but it was not the same. We were brought to our knees by social injustices, and there was so much happening in the world. So, ‘Songs of the Phoenix’ tries to capture that.”
The program includes the 14-movement consortium, “Songs of the Phoenix,” as well as the dreamy “Song of Purple Summer” from Spring Awakening by Duncan Sheik, “Rise Up” by Andra Day, and Lady Gaga’s “Angel Down.” The program will open with the closing number from AGMC’s holiday concert: “The Awakening” by Joseph Martin, which Milton describes as “the perfect microcosm of the theme of the show … After dark times, the spirit revives, and we do glorious singing together. The focus of the work is on victory, rebirth, and joy, all of which can be born of tragedy and loss.”
Before they returned to the stage, Milton and AGMC first performed and recorded “Angel Down” by Lady Gaga from their cars in 2020. The chorus dedicated the performance to George Floyd, a father and victim of police brutality whose death marked a series of protests and calls for political action across the globe during the summer of 2020.
Another movement from “Songs of the Phoenix” called “Mother Dear” tells the little-known story of “Blind Tom” Wiggins, one of the most successful pianists from America, who was born into slavery in Georgia. His ability to compose and play anything he heard brought about great renown and financial success for his enslavers, but made history when Wiggins became the first Black person to perform a concert at the White House.
Ty Defoe, who is two-spirit, is a member of the Ojibwe and Oneida native tribes. They composed “We Are Trees,” which Milton says, “calls on ancestors and descendants,” includes a land acknowledgment that has been rewritten for Georgia lands and “tells powerful truths about both native people and how we all are connected to the Earth and each other.” One of the movements, “Música Y Sabores,” composed by Diana Syrse, celebrates food and community often associated with food that was lost during the pandemic. In the words of Syrse, “To heal the sad soul it is necessary to surrender to the flavors that soothe the sorrows.”
Before his passing, Stephen Sondheim provided an unreleased composition titled, “Flag Song,” that, Milton says, confronts the “feelings we experience when we see a flag depicting our own culture. Be it the American flag or the trans flag, or the pride flag, that feeling of hope that, even if things aren’t great now, the ideals of our future are beautiful.”
The Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus presents “Songs of the Phoenix” on March 25 at St. Luke’s Midtown at 435 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta 30308 at 3pm and 7. Tickets are available at voicesofnote.org.