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Queer Urban Orchestra’s season set to launch

Queer Urban Orchestra’s season begins on Oct. 14. | Photo © 2017 by Bruce-Michael Gelbert

BY GERALD BUSBY | Queer Urban Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season, “Queer We Are,” begins Sun., Oct. 14, at Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. The program, which opens with Julius Eastman’s “Stay on It” and closes with Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor,” offers in between the premiere of my “3 Bagatelles for Orchestra.” Michael Sheppard, from Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, will be piano soloist for the Brahms concerto. QUO’s history exemplifies its commitment to performing serious music in contexts that advocate gay rights.

When I heard QUO for the first time last year, Julie Desbordes, the artistic director, conducted a program that included Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and a composition by Calenna Garbä, an Argentinian transgender composer. She was chosen because she contacted QUO in response to a call online for new scores, and submitted examples of her music to Ms. Desbordes for consideration. Garbä was radiantly present for the concert, greeting her admirers afterwards with a broad smile and a tight-fitting gold sequin gown. She personified QUO’s mission of striving to “entertain and educate members and audiences alike through performances of classical and contemporary music, prompting equality, understanding, acceptance, and respect.”

QUO came together in 2009 when a few musicians from The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps met to plan the formation of a gay orchestra. Andrew Berman, a percussionist, was among the founding members. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis was where they met weekly, and their number grew rapidly. They chose Queer Urban Orchestra as their name, mainly because the acronym QUO was easy to remember.

The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps followed from the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, created in 1978. These gay musical organizations (a movement, Andrew calls them) are meant to perpetuate the spirit of the Stonewall Rebellion in a cultured way, keeping the gay revolution alive auspiciously with classical music performances. Last year, QUO performed at the Queens Museum, and on the High Line in 2015. QUO’s very first concert was under the direction of, and partially conducted by, Brandyn Metzko, the first person to insist that New York needed a gay orchestra. He had been a member of one in San Francisco (the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony) before coming to New York.

QUO grew exponentially in its early stages, though it took a few more years to gain strength and confidence as a performing musical ensemble in New York City. Players of all kinds and abilities came to rehearsals, and there was a steady turnover. Some didn’t like the repertoire or the zealous promotion of gay political themes. That’s still going on, and QUO welcomes it as a practical means of keeping the artistic and social goals as the main reason for its existence.

The Church of the Holy Apostles, where The Stonewall Chorale often performs, became early on QUO’s concert hall, and also the place where the orchestra rehearsed. The church is a very resonant space. That’s good for performances, since the audience’s clothes absorb most of the echoes, but less good for rehearsals, because the expansive reverberation in the empty room makes it difficult for the musicians to hear each other clearly.

Steven Petrucelli, a French horn player, is straight, and exemplary of QUO’s mission to be open to all adult musicians regardless of sexual orientation.  A founding member of QUO, he was somewhat uncertain about belonging to a group that called itself queer and had only one other straight musician — but changed his mind because of QUO’s affable determination to create a viable community orchestra. If you can play in tune rhythmically with a good sound, you are welcome to play in QUO regardless of your sexual orientation.

All of which raises the question: Does QUO’s purpose to be a queer organization and outspoken proponent of gay rights enhance or conflict with its ability to make serious classical music? It certainly works artistically for the orchestra to have a dependable instrumentalist like Steve Petrucelli, and an artistic director (conductor), also straight, who leads the musicians with skill and flair through mainstream classical repertoire as well as new music.

As an 82-year-old gay composer, I can attest to QUO’s solid support of artists, regardless of age or sexual orientation.

Queer Urban Orchestra’s Sun., Oct. 14 concert takes place at 4pm, at Church of the Holy Apostles (296 Ninth Ave., at W. 28th St.). A 3:15pm pre-concert talk features artistic director Julie Desbordes, assistant director Alex Wen, guest soloist Michael Sheppard, and composer Gerald Busby. For tickets ($15-$25), visit

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