Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Vancouver Men’s Chorus turns 30

Chorus is more popular than ever

Willi Zwozdesky has been conducting the Vancouver Men's Chorus since its first public performance 30 years ago. Here he is in 1985. Credit: Vancouver Men's Chorus

The Vancouver Men’s Chorus (VMC) is marking its 30th anniversary with a 50-page book that chronicles the history and personalities of Canada’s first gay chorus.

Out of Silence: The First 30 Years of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus was written by long-time member Guy Cribdon to celebrate the group’s achievements and document its history.

“So far nobody had really tried to write down a history of the chorus,” he says. “There had been articles in newspapers and so forth, but we had not written our story down. That’s where it started, so I launched forth in the research.”

Willi Zwozdesky has been conducting the chorus almost since its inception. He moved to Vancouver on Sept 2, 1981, began singing in the chorus 14 days later, and was hired as conductor that December, when the original conductor wouldn’t take the podium at the group’s first public performance. Zwozdesky has held the position ever since.

“I had friends in the business tell me they couldn’t understand why I’d take this position. They thought it was professional suicide and said that if I took this on, my career would be over,” says Zwozdesky, who had completed his master’s in music earlier that year.

“I never thought there was anything wrong or that the chorus wasn’t up to a standard I was not proud of, so why in the world wouldn’t I do it?”

While a gay men’s chorus was a new concept for the community, Zwozdesky notes that singing in a choir is a common activity in the Western world. Sure enough, the VMC soon attracted a very stable following.

“I’d like to think there’s a great purpose behind the chorus,” he says. “It’s not unusual for people to be in a chorus for 30, 40 or 50 years, so the inherent nature of the instrument of the chorus is stable in that regard. [The VMC has] pretty good leadership, a strong administration, and we’ve never really had any of those earth-shaking scandals or any of that stuff. Just a consistent steady growth that has not been interrupted by some of the weird stuff that happens in other organizations.”

When Jay Catterson joined the chorus last year, he says, he found an unexpected brotherhood.

“It’s one thing that I love about the group, is the fact that it’s a swath of people,” he explains. “It’s not just one age group. It’s comprised of different faces and facets of the community, and we’re all bonded together by the love of singing and music. Before joining the chorus I couldn’t imagine meeting or interacting with these people.”

In addition to singing in the chorus, Catterson also serves as the VMC’s director of communications. He says they have recently expanded their presence to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where they uploaded an It Gets Better video in which VMC members share stories of hope interspersed with Zwozdesky’s arrangement of Fred Small’s “Everything Possible.”

Cribdon says the chorus maintains a current repertoire of music and notes that Glee, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are all part of their vocabulary.

“A lot of choirs have a particular type of music, but one thing that’s really great about the chorus is we sing all kinds of things,” he says. “We can do the classics, serious choral music, show tunes, Broadway and stuff that’s on the charts. In the years I’ve been there, I’ve been very conscious of the fact that we’re singing songs of the time.”

While some of the songs may change, one thing that remains constant is VMC’s annual Christmas concert, which dates back to 1981. This year’s production of Making Spirits Bright sparked the largest demand for tickets to date.

“The VMC is changing. We’re heading into this whole new direction and selling out concerts really quickly,” Catterson says. “The Making Spirits Bright concert sold out nine days in advance. It’s exciting; it’s a new chapter. The next 30 years look promising. It looks like we’re at the crux of something special.”

In the future, Zwozdesky hopes to expand the reach of the chorus without exhausting its members.

“We’ve sort of outgrown the venues we’re in,” he says. “It’s not that we can’t be in those places; we can. But in order to incorporate the audience, you have to perform a lot of times, and these guys are volunteers. So we can reach more people at the same time in a bigger room. That’d be a lot healthier for the guys.”

He also hopes to extend the VMC’s presence beyond Vancouver and into other areas of British Columbia.

“It’s expensive to move the chorus around,” he says. “The guys pay their own way the whole time, so we try to limit the request and demand on the guys, but there are countless places within striking distance of us here that we’ve not been to yet. We need to build new networks with places on the Sunshine Coast and the Interior. Outreach within our province is a really big thing.”