Nearly half of the members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus died at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. David Conte’s Invocation and Dance was written for that chorus in 1986.
David Conte is a multiple prize-winning and much recorded composer who is chair of composition at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. On July 12, 2023, I visited David at his home to conduct an interview with him. David lives in the Buena Vista neighborhood in a home with a spectacular view of the undulating mountains that characterize the landscape of the city. In this interview, he speaks about his compositional journey from Ohio to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, his interactions with Shanghai Conservatory, the sizable presence of Chinese students in US conservatories, and his take on global musics. We spoke on a number of other topics and discussed several of his works, including his Invocation and Dance. The text, drawn from Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” ruminates on death as part of nature. The first movement, Invocation, uses text that is enunciated as a bird song within the poem. As the poem detaches from the scene of human activity, the figure of the bird emerges as a solitary figure that merges with vast nature, in a poem ruminating on the cycle of death and life. David’s moving music creates a moment of mourning and healing in the midst of tragedy, as choral voices vibrate like the sound of nature. This is the excerpt from Whitman’s poem that Conte set in the Invocation movement:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
For the full interview with Conte, see:
Here are reflections from two members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, Tom Burtch and Robert Rufo, on Conte’s piece, as well as the Chorus and the larger gay choral movement.
Tom Burtch: “I sang with the SF Men’s Chorus from April, 1985 through May, 2022. I did not sing in the premier of David Conte’s Invocation and Dance in 1986, but I do remember rehearsing it. In the history of the Gay Choral movement up to 1986, there were very few commissioned works; the repertoire was mainly taken from already published music, sometimes with a double entendre, like, “We Kiss In A Shadow.” So just having a piece commissioned specifically for our chorus was already an exciting event. The fact that the words spoke to our experience with AIDS was even more groundbreaking. In 1985 when I joined the chorus, 6 members died – 5 were AIDS-related deaths. Today, the cumulative number of deaths is approximately 330, with close to 300 of them most likely AIDS-related deaths. After Conte’s piece, the song cycles, “Naked Man” (SFGMC commission from composer Robert Seeley, librettist Phillip Lettel) and “When We No Longer Touch” (Turtle Creek Chorale), which came along a few years (and many deaths) later, took the AIDS crisis head on. As multi movement pieces, they expressed the seven stages of grief. Many of these songs bring singers to tears to this day.
For myself and many others, the Chorus fulfilled the role of family, church, friendship, and support during a long period when an AIDS diagnosis was an actual death sentence. When families refused to visit their relatives in the hospitals or even refused to claim the bodies after death, those of us in the Chorus as well as our audiences found hope, acceptance, and sympathy at our concerts. Although I was raised in an evangelical Lutheran church, their rejection of LGBTQ members served to sever my religious ties to any organized faith-based group – I found the values I learned in my years attending church to be present in a larger measure in the brotherhood of the Chorus. In 1990, the SFGMC began to schedule concerts on Christmas Eve at the Castro Theatre. They were sold out from the first year and by the third year we were selling out three shows at 5, 7, and 9 PM. People would write to the Chorus office and many would say that our concert was the Holiday event they looked forward to year after year. In the early years of those concerts, audience members would come on canes, walkers, and in wheelchairs – some dragging along an oxygen bottle – because of what the Chorus meant to San Francisco. Since SFGMC is regarded as the “Grandfather” of the gay choral movement (because we were the first to use the word, “Gay” in our name), our role became that of stability in an unstable, unaccepting greater world. As technology advanced and YouTube gained popularity, our message and our music has become popular world wide.”
Robert Rufo: “I’ve been in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus from the early days and I’m still singing with them. I performed David Conte’s Invocation and Dance (1986) at its premiere, which took place at the height of a very difficult time in the community. It felt good and it felt powerful to finally be singing about what was happening all around us. I also recall singing other pieces related to AIDS, such as Hidden Legacies (from the 90s)and also When We No Longer Touch. During that time, if you did not have AIDS you were very busy taking care of all those who did. AIDS was simply all encompassing. Many men were visibly ill but they sang with us as long as they could. Chorus was a big part of my life because I was really needed to help out with all those who were ill. But the chorus was also more than the AIDS epidemic, because it reflected the entirety of LGBTQ+ life that was determined to express itself. It was part of the whole flowering of LGBTQ+ culture that was happening here at that time. We were very popular and our concerts overall were joyous and lots of fun. We were a group the community was proud of.”