By Matt King
Music has long been used to fight for social justice — to open eyes and minds as people fight for equality.
This is something that Jerry R. Soria-Foust knows well. He has a history of leading LGBTQ+ choruses, including the San Diego Men’s Chorus—and he was recently named the artistic director of the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus, which is about to start its 23rd season with a performance at Greater Palm Springs Pride.
Soria-Foust, who was also formerly the music director of the Bay Area’s Opus Q, A Men’s Vocal Ensemble, recently returned to California after a decade away.
“I always hoped to come back,” Soria-Foust said during a recent phone interview. “Conducting, and particularly conducting in the gala-choruses network, has always been a passion of mine. Having served previously in a couple of other artistic-director positions, including in San Diego for five years, my hope was always to come back to this type of position.
“I’ve always been a very big fan of Palm Springs in general. I spent a lot of time here when I lived in Southern California, and have a lot of friends here, a lot of acquaintances. A lot of people who have retired from San Diego are now here, so it really, in a lot of ways, feels like coming home.”
Soria-Foust’s love for conducting stems from his career in education.
“I’m a teacher, first and foremost, so everything that I do, and have done in my life, is kind of based on the idea of teaching,” said Soria-Foust. “Being a conductor is a lot about artistry, and interpreting music, and making the music come alive onstage—but it really, and truly in community choruses like this, is about being a teacher. We have singers who are experienced and confident, and who have done dozens, or maybe even more, concerts before as a part of an ensemble like this. Then we have a lot of singers who have never sung before. My job as a conductor is not just to interpret the music and make sure that it comes alive on the stage, but I also am responsible for really making sure that every singer has a positive experience with the music, and understands and learns a lot about the music that they’re singing, and why it’s important.
“The same goes for the audience. One of my missions is to make sure that the audience leaves knowing more than when they came in—knowing about our music, about our mission, and about our message of both artistry and social justice, which work hand in hand through our music that we program.”
The hiring of Soria-Foust is just part of a series of changes the chorus is going through as it—like all other performing-arts organizations—emerges from the pandemic.
“This is an exciting new chapter for the organization,” Soria-Foust said. “There is a new board that is highly focused on moving the chorus in every way into the future—artistically, organizationally, and just in terms of our role in Palm Springs as a leader in the arts and also a leader in the gay and lesbian community. This board is very committed to moving into the future.
“My goal is to up the production game, in terms of the performances that the audience sees. I want to really explore ways we can use our space even more creatively in the Annenberg Theater (at the Palm Springs Art Museum), which is a beautiful, world-class performing-art space. I want to continue to teach the singers to sing healthfully and build their technique so that their music comes through in even more moving ways.”
After their performance at Palm Springs Pride, the chorus will launch into a season including two full programs, in December and April. And that’s just the start.
“My goal is to up the production game, in terms of the performances that the audience sees. I want to really explore ways we can use our space even more creatively in the Annenberg Theater.”
— Jerry R. Soria-Foust
“In a couple of years, we’ll be going to the GALA Choruses international festival (a gathering of LGBTQ+ choruses), which happens every four years, and I’m going to be looking for opportunities to commission new works—both arrangements and compositions for the chorus—and add additional professional musicians to the performances, so the audience experiences an even more deep and satisfying experience musically,” Soria-Foust said. “Also, we’ll possibly do some touring and working outside of our zip code to continue to do what we do best, and that is to change minds and touch hearts.
“Ours really is on the cusp of being a world-class organization, and that’s what we’re focusing on for the future, both in terms of numbers—we’re singing over 90 for our upcoming concert, and I expect that’ll keep going up—but also in terms of the quality of our productions, our fiscal soundness, and the expertise with which we approach our marketing and development, and patron relationships.”
Soria-Foust also wants the chorus to contribute to a wider understanding of the LGBT experience by “standing up and speaking out.”
“We use music as a way to—and I hate to sound clichéd, but to build bridges of understanding,” he said. “We live in Palm Springs, so we’re fortunate to live in a community that is pretty integrated and supportive, but there are still communities I know personally, outside of where we live, that still are struggling with young people killing themselves, and discrimination in the workplace. We’ve won a lot of victories, and we’ve been right there at the forefront. You see any rally for gay marriage, or adopting, or any other issue, and you’re going to see the gala chorus and that community right there in the front, singing. … Choruses like ours are doing that all over the country, and really all over the world, including in Mexico and other places where you wouldn’t expect that to be happening.
“I began singing with gala choruses when I was 19; I wasn’t even out of the closet yet. We had singers back in the ’90s, in our community in Indianapolis, who wouldn’t even have their name printed on a playbill, because they were afraid to be seen singing in a gay chorus. Now, obviously, that’s changed a lot over the last 30 years, but there are still communities where we’re struggling, where our voices really do need to be heard.”
This idea of building bridges relates to the chorus’ upcoming season.
“Our season has the theme of ‘Light,’ and this idea that it’s our time to shine again,” Soria-Foust said. “We’ve been off the stage for a long time. This will be two years since we’ve done a holiday production, so we’re bringing a concert that will shine. There was darkness, and in this time of COVID, and the arts organizations basically shut down, so our shining will start with our December concert, which is Sparkle Twinkle Jingle. We have great music from all sorts of Broadway sources; we have more-serious music by composers, and then everything in between, both traditional and nontraditional holiday music. We’re also featuring a guest star, Michele McConnell, from Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. She’s the longest-running Carlotta, that well-known diva from Phantom of the Opera, in Broadway history, and she’ll be singing with us, and then also a few songs by herself. We’re also singing in four languages, and that’s going to be a treat for the audience, too.
“For April, our show is Razzle Dazzle Shine, and we’re doing all Broadway and movie equality-themed music—music that speaks to the experience of oppressed people, and music that helps build bridges of understanding. That includes music from The Muppet Show, Jersey Boys, Rocketman, and all kinds of other great material.”
More information: The Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus will perform at 4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Effen Main Stage at Greater Palm Springs Pride, in downtown Palm Springs. Admission is free. For more information on Pride, visit apps.pspride.org. For more information on the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus, visit psgmc.com.