Happy Birthday to Dallas’ Turtle Creek Chorale

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It was the evening of 19 February 1980 that thirty-eight men gathered for the first rehearsal of the newly formed Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas Texas. At the time, the idea of having a men’s chorus which drew membership from and which would serve Dallas’ large, but not highly visible, gay community was a bold and daring notion, and far braver than one may readily conceive today. In the thirty-seven years which have passed since that day in 1980, so much has changed so dramatically that it is difficult to realize the very potent courage and powerful conviction that those thirty-eight pioneering singers expressed by daring to take part in that first rehearsal.

The idea to form a gay men’s chorus for Dallas was famously born as three friends chatted over cocktails one Sunday afternoon in Dallas. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus had been founded less than two years before as the world’s first musical organization specifically serving the gay community, and its initial successes and setbacks were much discussed in gay communities across North America. It had been more than a decade since the watershed Stonewall Riots, and the gay community was finding more acceptance than ever before. People wanted more social outlets than gay bars could provide, and many wanted to be a part of something which could provide both a creative outlet and a channel for community service. Musical organizations filled this need wonderfully, and many long-established gay and lesbian choruses and bands were formed in this era

Since the social and political climate in Dallas of 1980 was far from progressive, it was decided that the name of the chorus should reflect the area of the city from which much of its membership would be drawn, but would not include the word “gay.” For some years, this led folks in choruses who were more politically active to infer that the TCC was “in the closet,” yet this was never the case. The very first flyer promoting the first rehearsal of 19 February makes it quite clear; it proclaims the chorus to be created for gay men would like to sing and work with other gay men, and it notes that the first public performance had been planned for Gay Pride Week. The poster also emphasizes that “our purpose is good music,” and the chorus would be “an organization dedicated to enjoying and performing the finest four-part male choral music.”

It is not possible in this short narrative to give the history of the Turtle Creek Chorale the treatment it is fully due. But the highpoints can be noted. The Turtle Creek Chorale (“TCC”) gave its first public performance in April of 1980 after just 8 weeks of rehearsal, and its first formal concert was in June of that year. As is often the case with community arts groups, the TCC had its early struggles as it strove to develop its identity and to find the needed funding to keep the organization alive. Members who sang during the chorus’ first decade recall car washes and bake sales and other typical fund-raising efforts that kept the organization afloat. The early years of the Chorale coincided with the most devastating period of the AIDS crisis. The impact upon the chorus was huge, both emotionally and psychologically, and practically. Yet the organization persevered. The membership worked hard to support one another during a time when memorial services and funerals far outnumbered concerts. The impact of AIDS upon the Turtle Creek Chorale and the chorus’ response is memorably and movingly documented in the Emmy award winning PBS feature After Goodbye, which first aired in 1993.

The organization also worked hard to find leadership with the right combination of musical creativity, and experience, mixed with vision and energy. The chorus needed someone who could embrace and embody its core values of making beautiful music and building bridges among people of all walks of life. The quest was somewhat constrained by the simple fact that the Chorale had a miniscule budget from which to pay for the talent they needed! Yet, as some sage once observed, “The Universe provides,” and so it did in this case. Doctor Timothy Seelig, who had been dismissed from a church position in Houston when he “came out” in early 1987 decided that the Turtle Creek Chorale was an opportunity he wanted to pursue, despite the rather uncertain finances of the organization.

Dr. Seelig brought both outstanding musical credentials and remarkable vision to the TCC. For the next two decades, Dr. Seelig would direct the chorus as it attained one milestone after another. The chorus rose to international stature, its joint recording of John Rutter’s Requiem with the Women’s Chorus of Dallas reached the top of Billboard’s classical charts, and by the mid-1990s the TCC was recognized by Grammy Magazine as the most recorded men’s chorus in the world. The chorus performed for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Dallas, and for the Inaugurals of Texas Governor Anne Richards and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. The chorus frequently joined forces with other North Texas musical groups and consistently reached out to an ever-broadening definition of “community.” The Turtle Creek Chorale was invited to perform for both regional and national conventions of the American Choral Directors Association and performed concert tours across the US and abroad. The TCC was also featured in two award winning PBS documentaries in 1993 and 2005. On top of all these achievements, the chorus continued to devote thousands of man-hours every year to community service, and to remain a valuable asset for the city of Dallas.

In 2007, after 20 years of service embracing fully 2/3 of the history of the chorus, Dr. Seelig stepped down as artistic director. It would be easy to understand if he simply chose to “rest of his laurels” and to bask in his two decades of landmark accomplishment, but, characteristically, he has thrown himself into new projects and today, as Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, continues to provide leadership and service to his many communities.

Following Dr. Seelig’s tenure, an extensive nationwide search in 2006-2007 found Dr. Jonathan Palant, who served as the TCC’s Artistic Director through the 2011 season. Dr. Palant brought impeccable musical credentials and energetic embrace of the chorus’ mission to his role as artistic director, the chorus continued to accumulate accolades and to achieve notable milestones, including a concert tour of Spain in July of 2010. Significantly, community service remained a core value for Dr. Palant and the chorus, as exampled by 2010’s “Voices For Haiti,” a fund-raising concert for Haitian Earthquake Relief. Doctor Palant felt that the TCC simply had to find a way to help and he worked with many organizations and artists to make this happen in an astonishingly short time. This concert was a 6-hour “marathon” featuring several musical groups and performers from North Texas, and was hosted by Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope. After Dr. Palant’s departure in July of 2011, then Assistant Professor and Director of Choral Activities of Eastern Michigan University, Trey Jacobs was selected to serve as Interim Artistic Director of the Chorale. Though the job was originally conceived of as “interim,” it became immediately apparent upon his taking the podium that his position should become permanent, and in March of 2012, Trey Jacobs was named Artistic Director.

Under Trey Jacobs, the TCC remained a key element of Dallas’ artistic culture. In July of 2012, the Chorale delivered a highly acclaimed performance at the GALA Choruses Festival in Denver, Colorado, and in December of that year, the TCC broke new ground with a holiday concert series that featured two complete and completely different concert offerings. In March of 2013, the chorus was honored to take part in choral Clinics for the American Choral Directors Association convention in Dallas.

At the end of the 2013-2014 season, Trey Jacobs informed the Chorale of his intention to return a career in music education in Tennessee; the TCC’s long-time Assistant Director Sean Baugh was named Interim Director for the 2014-2015 season. Sean, of course, had some impressively large shoes to fill, and he was more than equal to the challenge, so shortly after leading the TCC in an outstanding concert celebrating the chorus’ 35th anniversary, on 4 March 2015, Sean was named Permanent Artistic Director.

Under Sean’s leadership the chorus continued to be a significant contributor to the Dallas Community and to the LGBTQ Community world wide. In June of 2016, just two days after the tragic news of the massacre in Orlando, Sean led the Chorus in a widely acclaimed concert for support and healing. Two weeks later, the TCC performed a joint concert with Germany’s Schola Cantorosa in preparation for the 2017 GALA Choruses Festival in Denver. In Colorado, the chorus delivered another bravura performance on 6 July 2016. The chorus ended 2016 with a historic “personal best” for the TCC; for its first time ever, the TCC performed a fully sold out concert series for “A Not-So-Silent Night.” The concerts received rave reviews.

Naturally, I have left out immense amounts of information in this short piece. There are so many key contributors I have not mentioned, and vital, dedicated people I do not name here who have made the Turtle Creek Chorales what it is and has been these past thirty-seven years. As I say, it is impossible in one brief essay to adequately cover thirty-seven years in the history of such a vital and vibrant organization. Any errors or omissions are my own doing.

Suffice it to say:

Happy Birthday, Turtle Creek Chorale! Here’s to many, many more!

— Jamie Rawson

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One thought on “Happy Birthday to Dallas’ Turtle Creek Chorale

  1. Jamie, ever the eloquent and thoughtful writer. Thank you for this wonderful review of our thirty years. I have always felt humbled to be among the many talented Turtles during my years as a member.

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