New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus …
The Endearing Story of a Granite State Treasure
Founded in 1998, the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus (NHGMC) has an amazing, endearing history of triumphs and struggles, good times and bad. Through it all, the Chorus has delivered high-quality entertainment and musical joy to thousands of people all over the state. Despite overcoming fears and doubts in its early years, when acceptance of gay people in New Hampshire was scarce, NHGMC has blossomed into rapidly growing professional musical and community-service organization in high demand.
What is the NHGMC?
Now in its 21st year, NHGMC is a popular, talented, not-for-profit musical group that performs two concert series per year — a Holiday series in December and a Spring series in May — in at least four New Hampshire cities.
The Chorus also gives many Outreach performances throughout the year at assisted living centers, at Interfaith services, for civic groups, and at Pride events. In recent years, the Chorus has received greater publicity, performing on national and local television.
Today, unlike its early years, the Chorus is in high demand, respected, and loved more than ever. The Chorus has received written Proclamations from New Hampshire governors and the mayors of New Hampshire cities. In March, 2018, as part of its yearlong series of spectacular 20th Anniversary events, NHGMC made history when it performed for New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and his Executive Council inside the State House. It was the first such invitation from any New Hampshire governor. Governor Sununu also honored the Chorus by presenting NHGMC with a 20th Anniversary Commendation.
Every year, the Chorus sings the National Anthem to open the New Hampshire Fisher Cats baseball game in Manchester. And for the first time in its history, in June, 2017, NHGMC sang the National Anthem for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park – the first gay men’s chorus to sing at Fenway!
In 2004, the Chorus made history when it traveled to Walt Disney World in Florida to perform there as the first openly gay choral group. The trip coincided with its popular Spring 2004 concert series, Disney Spectacular. NHGMC has also partnered with other orchestras and choruses to enrich the New Hampshire arts community.
Each year, as a community service, NHGMC provides a student scholarship to a New Hampshire high school senior planning a career in the Performing Arts. The Chorus is an IRS 501(c)3 not-for-profit group.
Founding and early years
The Story of NHGMC is an endearing New Hampshire success story and dream come true.
NHGMC began in late 1997 as a twinkle in the eyes of three men — Richard Bojko, David R. Snelson, and the late David Swart — following a Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC) holiday concert that they attended in Boston.
As told by one of the original singers, charter signers, and board officers, the late Chuck Hill: “These three men had the original dream. After that Boston concert, they said, ‘Gee, why can’t New Hampshire do something like that? It’s time!’ Then they told their friends. The word spread. That’s how I found out about it,” says Hill. “The chorus got going through word of mouth more than anything else. They put out the call to the community, found a director, an accompanist, a place to rehearse, and several men eager to sing. So the founders said, ‘Let’s get this act together, let’s find a place to rehearse and perform and bring our singers there.’ They approached Father Jerry Stretch at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Manchester for rehearsal space. He was a big supporter. Earlier in his life, Father Jerry had also been a bartender at Stonewall Inn in New York.”
The men assembled and began rehearsing as a choral group in April, 1998. That same spring, a state charter declaring the chorus a nonprofit corporation and signed by several chartering members, was filed with the New Hampshire Secretary of State. Thus on June 8, 1998, the Manchester Performing Arts Association (MPAA), doing business as the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus, was officially born!
Under their first music director, Rodney F. Mansfield, and first accompanist, Gary MacDonald, the Chorus’s first performance became an informal program sung for the second New Hampshire Pride festival at Manchester’s Veterans Park on a scorching hot first day of summer – June 20, 1998. The first group of singers sang in the park, along with Mansfield and MacDonald with a portable keyboard. The singers were met with cheers but also, sadly, some heckling.
An avid theater and music lover, performer, and career educator, Mansfield had served as director of the Barnstormers Men’s Chorus for fourteen years. He had also founded the Greeley Singers of Pelham and the Mischaum Choral Society in Woburn, Massachusetts. With his exemplary qualifications, Mansfield quickly established NHGMC’s standard of choral excellence.
“Rodney had been an excellent, accomplished choral director already. His choruses sang at ham and bean suppers and community events,” says Hill, whom Mansfield seems to have drafted as a singer. “I didn’t start out as a singer. I started out on the support staff because I just didn’t think I’d be able to sing. I hadn’t sung since high school. So for the first two rehearsal weeks, I’m sitting in the church sanctuary watching these guys singing, while Rodney occasionally turned around to look at me. By the third week, he comes marching up the aisle and says, ‘Excuse me, who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a support person,’ and he said, ‘No you’re not! You’re a baritone, so get your ass up there now! We’re not selling tickets yet!’”
Snelson and Swart sang as tenors. Snelson also served as NHGMC’s first president, and Bojko as first treasurer, on its first Board of Directors.
In ‘98, the founders also reached out to Jim Bretz, a high-profile leader in the New Hampshire gay community. Bretz, a baritone, member of the first board and successor to Snelson as president, helped organize the fledgling new Manchester Performing Arts Association in the early years, giving the Chorus its first exposure in New Hampshire. And Bretz had quite the resume! In addition to his successful career in health and human services, Bretz had founded and organized a plethora of New Hampshire groups, including the Minotaur’s Brotherhood Club, the New Hampshire Political Coalition of Lesbians and Gays, the Gay Couples Support Group, Dignity New Hampshire, the Young People Support Group, Out and Proud Men’s Group, and New Hampshire Naturally. He was instrumental in getting MPAA to host and sponsor a gala for the Diversity 2000 Leadership Awards — also known as the Lambda awards — honoring contributions to New Hampshire’s LBGT community.
Swart, Mansfield, Bretz, and Chuck Hill have sadly since passed away, but they live on in memoriam.
Hill, beloved by his NHGMC family, died suddenly on November 15, 2012, just a few short weeks after he gave the Board of Directors his Chorus scrapbooks and photos and provided personal tales for the anniversary storybook, in preparation for NHGMC’s 15th anniversary year. At the time of his death, Hill was immediate past president and Chorus photographer. He had also handcrafted, at his own expense, festive boutonnieres for the men to wear on their tux lapels each concert season.
“In the beginning we were very fortunate to have the support of Father Jerry at St. Andrew’s,” says Bojko. “He was really a tremendous supporter of the Chorus. He was very proud of it, and he would let his congregation know. He got up in front of our audiences and referred to us as his ‘boys.’ He was such a great guy.” After a few years, the Chorus made a decision to relocate its rehearsals to another church.
In the spring of ’98, Father Jerry asked MacDonald to be the Chorus’s accompanist. “Father Jerry knew me well because I had rebuilt and reinstalled the organ donated to St. Andrew’s,” says MacDonald. “They had originally asked the church choir organist there at the time, but he declined, so then Father Jerry approached me, and I agreed and volunteered. The rehearsal space was actually donated because the Chorus didn’t have any money back then. They had a shoestring budget! They didn’t compensate me or Rodney, simply because they didn’t have the money. Rodney and I had known each other a few years prior to that. I had played for his Greeley Singers.” MacDonald, in addition to his business career, had cultivated a music career, playing and refurbishing organs. Originally from Vermont, MacDonald started playing piano in the second grade. He went to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and during his 45 years as an accompanist, he’s played for many church choirs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Today, he’s an organist for the choir at St. Patrick’s Church, Nashua.
“The first year we were all getting organized,” says MacDonald. “We were out there trying to lure anybody and everybody. We didn’t have auditions back then, not even tryouts. We were just trying to open it up to those interested in singing. Rod listened to their voices, but there was no formal audition. Rod even brought in his partner, Bob Halle, to sing as a baritone. Rod was a very good director. He could be very laid back, but also very demanding when he needed to be. But he was a very nice guy. He had so much experience. He treated me very well, and we got along famously. Rod pretty much picked out the music. He did a lot of standards. He had experience with four-part male choirs. He had quite a library, and we used a lot of that because we didn’t have a budget to buy music. He brought in many pieces from the Barnstormers.”
Talented first tenor, Steve Valido, is the only remaining original singing member. When Valido and accompanist MacDonald met in April of ’98, they not only shared their love of music and musical talents but also fell in love – becoming partners in a relationship that continues today. Says MacDonald, “I met Steve when I arrived as accompanist. Steve was living in Lawrence at the time and needed transportation to and from Manchester rehearsals. Rod picked him up a number of times, and there was some carpooling for a while. Sometimes Steve even took the bus up there. He made a huge effort to get up there for rehearsals. I started helping him out and taking him home from rehearsals. We hit it off right away. I was very attracted to him and I loved his voice!”
Mansfield and MacDonald served for three years, producing four concert series: A Holiday Festival, Singing Out with Pride, Sounds of the Yuletide, and Bits of Broadway. The chorus actually performed the Spring 2000 concert series, Bits of Broadway, together with the Pioneer Valley Men’s Chorus of Northampton, Massachusetts. In the program, the Pioneer Valley chorus sang a set of songs, NHGMC sang a set of songs, and then the two choruses teamed up to sing one song together — one performance in Northampton and one at Christ Episcopal Church, Portsmouth.
In September, 2000, Mansfield and MacDonald were succeeded by the Chorus’s current artistic director, Luc Andre Roberge, and current principal accompanist, Gary Finger. Roberge and Finger were already singers in the Chorus. Roberge had joined as a very talented bass in September, ’98. Finger became hooked after he joined as a baritone in January, 2000, with his boyfriend at the time, Rick Carkin.
Mansfield passed away in May, 2011, at age 80. He was fondly eulogized with a memorial written in the concert program for the Winter 2011 series, Peace. Mansfield’s biography also appeared in the Crystal Jubilee concert series programs — Winter 2012 series, Colors of Winter, and Spring 2013 series, We Got That Swing!
MacDonald recalled that transition: “Before they looked at Luc Roberge as a replacement for Rod, they interviewed a few director candidates, but I wasn’t overly impressed with them. Some of them were real hot shots! Overall, I thought it would be a good time to bow out as accompanist. At the time, I didn’t know they would ask Luc, and I didn’t really know about Luc and his directing skills. But I can tell you that Luc has been a very fine director! I didn’t know Gary Finger well, either, though we’ve become good friends since. He’s a great player and very talented. And he’s also a very nice guy.”
An incredibly accomplished accompanist himself, Finger, who started playing piano in the fifth grade, married Carkin on 10-10-10 at Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, taking advantage of New Hampshire’s new same-gender marriage law. The Chorus sang several beautiful songs for the couple at their wedding ceremony. Finger grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and graduated from North Texas State University, Denton, with a Music degree in Performance.
NHGMC organized various fundraising events, most occurring in the early years. In 1999, for example, Bojko, a very successful New England antique dealer, helped the Chorus host an Antique Roadshow and Appraisal Day in Manchester. Bojko and his partner, John Mullen – also a support staff member with Bojko back then – are proprietors of Parker-French Antique Center of Northwood. In 2004, NHGMC organized a performance in Derry to benefit the Chorus, starring nationally known stand-up comic and comedic actor, Ant!
But what was the chorus really like during those first few years? It may have been a dream come true but according to Bojko, it wasn’t exactly a Norman Rockwell existence. The fledgling young musical group was struggling for survival, organizationally as well as financially, says Bojko, and characterized by loud, raucous disagreements between “member factions” over the future direction of the group. “There was some serious fracturing and plenty of drama. But I think that’s the nature of organizations when they first get started.”
It took a while, but fortunately and eventually the new group moved through its raucous beginnings. “Jim Bretz tried to keep the peace, tried to bring everyone together. He tried to emphasize the social aspects of the Chorus,” Bojko added. “Jim also really tried hard to bring us more visibility. Hence he got MPAA to sponsor the Diversity awards, and I do believe it brought the chorus a lot of visibility in the gay community. Officially, MPAA was the sponsor, and NHGMC sang at it as guest performers. Back then, some of us envisioned MPAA becoming a focal point in the gay community, bringing all the different factions and groups together. Jim wanted to do that, and he had the connections to do that, but sadly he passed away.”
MacDonald agreed that some angst characterized the early years – that it was anything but a portrait of serenity. “During those years, the chorus was made up of a good bunch of guys. But in the beginning, some of the attitudes weren’t quite, shall we say, as calm as they are now!”
MacDonald added, “David Snelson and Dave Swart were very nice guys. David Snelson put so much of his heart and soul into the chorus. He offered some good leadership as one of the founders. At the beginning, they didn’t have a formal board of directors, so he was heading things up as best he could. Dave Swart had a good attitude. He was big helper in practically everything, and he worked really well with the guys … They were a dedicated bunch of guys. We had quite a few of them commuting, like Steve, to Manchester from great distances.”
In addition to believing it was time for New Hampshire to have its own gay men’s chorus, the founders created NHGMC, Bojko says, “because we were also looking for a social outlet.” Bojko stayed as a member for about three years. “Before the Chorus was founded, we had kind of a brunch club that used to meet. Dave Snelson and Chuck Hill and some of the guys were part of that. So the chorus was also to become a vehicle for social interaction.”
“In the beginning it was difficult recruiting men,” continued Bojko. “I was not a singer. I was strictly a support person, and I volunteered to be treasurer and cultivate our not-for-profit status. I was the money man, I guess. We knew we’d have to go out and solicit funds and ask for contributions. At first, we didn’t want to use NHGMC as our name because, back then, we thought it could have been an issue. With the word gay in the title, we were concerned that no one would want to give us money. That’s one of the reasons we called it the Manchester Performing Arts Association. But we also wanted an umbrella organization to develop different groups, a women’s singing group, a mixed group, all under that umbrella. Around 2000, we did once start to organize a women’s group, but it was unfortunately a failure. It never got off the ground due to lack of interest … I actually did alright raising money. From that antique road show and appraisal day that we organized, we made $1068! We considered that a lot of money!”
By all accounts, despite the drama and hardships of the early years, NHGMC has successfully fulfilled all three goals of its mission statement: To present quality entertainment, provide an opportunity for wholesome social interaction for members, and present a positive image of the gay community in New Hampshire.