Arts & Entertainment
7 min

Queer Songbook Orchestra brings old anthems to new life

Orchestra presents Songs of Resilience at PuSh Fest and in New West

Three years ago, freelance trumpet player Shaun Brodie hit a wall in Toronto. Burnt out from an endless scramble for paying gigs — a constant struggle for a professional musician — he had also just endured a stinging rejection from journalism school.

With no shortage of vision, but faced with scant opportunities for meaningful artistic expression, he decided to innovate.

“I was completely at loose ends,” Brodie says. “My thought was: how could I interweave my passions for music and queer storytelling? And, consequently, how could I give my fellow musicians in Toronto more paying work?”

So Brodie gambled, and founded what has since become Toronto’s Queer Songbook Orchestra (QSO), a professional 11-piece pop chamber ensemble, now its third season.

Each QSO performance blends the familiar and the unexpected, with all-new interpretations of pop classics from many of Canada’s top composers and arrangers. Each QSO piece also features narration from members of the ensemble that illustrates its connection to the queer canon, and its personal resonance for them.

(The Queer Songbook Orchestra performs its own haunting arrangement of “Constant Craving” by kd lang.)

“By building a living, joyful archive of songs that celebrate the stories of queer artists, we explore the unifying and empowering elements of music and narrative. We challenge the contradiction of a public which adores the art, but often marginalizes the artist,” Brodie says. 

“The vision is simple,” says Jordan Tannahill, who also played a key role in QSO’s formation. “Celebrate the lives of queer artists who, despite often producing work to great acclaim, never had the chance to communicate what this work really meant to them.

“And then, allow audiences to experience that missed opportunity. We want them to revel in the untold stories behind each piece,” Tannahill says.

The QSO will play the Anvil Centre Theatre in New Westminster on Jan 28, 2016, and headline the PuSh Festival the following evening. Tannahill — appointed as Club PuSh’s curator-in-residence for 2016 and 2017 — advocated successfully for these opportunities.

“We strive to make every PuSh experience a visceral one for audiences,” says PuSh associate curator Joyce Rosario. “The QSO is no exception. Their work enables audiences to communally experience music’s healing properties.”

“We want people to leave QSO’s show with a serious case of the warm fuzzies,” Rosario says.