Dallas — One of Dallas’s abiding traditions is the Turtle Creek Chorale annual holiday concert, a heady mixture of madcap, soulful and satisfying. This year’s production, entitled “Shimmer and Shine: A Holiday Spectacular” will be presented at the Moody Performance Hall for four performances Dec. 14-16. Although tickets are hotter commodities this year than Hatchimals at a toy store, Artistic Director Sean Mikel Baugh, who joined TheaterJones for an interview, assures that there are plenty of seats available for the Saturday matinee.
Mr. Baugh who is conducting his fourth extravaganza was very forthcoming about the Chorale’s past and future, about the message that group tries to convey and about some of the surprises and thrills in store for the audience.
TheaterJones: What previews and hints can you give the reader about this year’s Holiday concerts?
Sean Mikel Baugh: As always, we are promising a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, although this year may be leaning a little more to the sublime side. We have four premieres this year—new arrangements of existing songs that have not been sung before. And we have a range of both pop and traditional literature. One piece I am really excited by is a lesser known piece by Sara Bareilles, who we love, called “Love is Christmas” which definitely touches our sublime side.
This show bucks the tried and true formula (of Christmas programs). We have the old favorites and there is lots of Christmas-y music. But we also sing a lot of unexpected music—pieces that aren’t necessarily associated with the Holidays but which resonate with the underlying message. So think of anything from the Beatles “All You Need Is Love” to Burt Bacharach “What the World Needs Now” to David Bowie’s “Nature Boy.”
As for the ridiculous side, let’s just say that we are doing a number that will make you change the way you think about fruitcake forever.
Over the early part of the decade, there was a trend towards very campy, lounge music Christmases which fit TCC’s ridiculous side. Now the tastes seem to be swinging back to more sedate and traditional performance. Has the group changed the performances any to match the trends?
While it’s true that we have always tried to have some campiness, I haven’t necessarily felt that TCC actively tried to follow the trend. I think there have always been traditional parts of Christmas and the holidays that you just don’t mess with. Having said that, I do think that there has been an effort to lighten up the holidays quite a bit, and the Chorale has always been on the forefront of that. But it’s good to see the beautiful and rich vocal music has taken root so solidly now. It feels more soulful, especially at this time of year.
How have the Holiday shows changed for TCC over the years?
I don’t think our general presentation has changed that much in the almost 40 years we have been performing holiday programs. We have always featured the ridiculous antics. Maybe we are being more ambitious with some of our so-called serious singing.
What has changed though is the organization of the concerts. Up to about 10 years ago, the first half of the show would be a silly production, like a play. Then we would settle down and do a more serious second half. Now we weave in and out of humor and soulfulness. Even if one piece doesn’t do it for you, the next song will be a change of pace. The audiences seem to appreciate it.
It’s interesting that over the years, we have had an even split. Some of the audience loves the silly stuff and just tolerates the serious music. Some people put up with the ridiculous to hear us do the real music. But you know what you are going to get at a Turtle Creek concert. You will laugh and cry. You will see some ridiculous nonsense, but in the end you will leave with a heartwarming feeling.
It seems that lately, the Holidays have become less joyous for all of us, partly because they are so busy and so intense. The Chorale’s mindset is to get over it by not taking it so seriously all the time. We make fun of ourselves so that we can have a good laugh and get the tension out of our systems.
Who have been your inspirations in putting together TCC’s programs?
I especially love Craig Hella Johnson with the Conspirare in Austin. He has a way of weaving together a program that is you’d never expect. He’ll pull pieces that don’t seem to have anything in common into a surprising and brilliant combination.
Next of course is Tim Seelig, who directed the Chorale for many years. He really taught me what it means to program a concert. As he used to say, “We always try to give the audience a tear, a goosebump and a laugh.”
Finally, believe it or not, I am very influenced by St Olaf’s Christmas concerts [in Minnesota]. Obviously we don’t do that type of performance, but they achieve a level of class that I like to think the Chorale aspires to when we try to be classy.
Is there input from the membership when you program a concert?
I always ask for as much input as I can. I like to make sure we are performing music that the performers want to do. Maybe there is a pop piece that a group of them really like or a specific carol. Sometimes I need a lot of help. For instance, this spring we are doing a tribute to rock music [“Blinded: Turtles Rock Out!”, March 15-17, 2019] and I don’t know as much about that kind of music, so I asked for a lot of input on that concert.
Having said that, although I try to fit the member’s ideas in, in the end I do the programming. And the whole process seems to work well.
It seems that Turtle Creek Chorale is going through a process of rediscovery, not only trying to shore up your financial standing but also to find a new relevance in changing times. How has this been reflected in the concert programming?
It is true that the whole concept of a predominantly gay men’s choir has changed. When we first started and even until fairly recently, we had members who couldn’t let their name appear in the program for fear of repercussions from their work or their community. And of course we were formed during and deeply affected by the AIDS crisis, something we still give remembrance to. Just about all of us have personal stories of discrimination and fear and shame that we bring to the ensemble.
Now our message has become more about communication, which is not exclusively an LGBT message. We perform to bring joy and love into a world that is so desperately searching for it. For instance, this summer, we did what we called our “Friendship Tour” where we took the Chorale to some of the most extremely conservative communities in the region. And we played to packed houses, often of people who do not necessarily share our political views. We found a commonality through our entertainment and a sense of unity came through. I think that is our new relevance.
Our concerts always have a lot of glitz and silliness, but there is also always a heartfelt message. If there is anything that this Holiday performance shows, it is that music and art are tools to create an environment of unity.