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    Tim Seelig Reflects on the Past Decade with SFGMC and Reveals Future Plans

    Dr. Tim Seelig’s talent, charisma, and sheer life force are unmistakable, immeasurable. When he steps in front of the mighty San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to conduct, the impact on audiences as the chorus’ members realize his creative vision can be transformative, going far beyond that shared moment in time. Wielding his baton like a magic wand, he takes listeners on an emotional ride that may lead to quiet contemplation and flowing tears one minute, followed by joy so immense that many audience members spontaneously leap out of their seats to applaud and plead for encores.

    In the rare instances in which Tim sings solo, his beautiful voice reminds listeners that they are in the presence of a world-class performer—in addition to his being a highly acclaimed conductor, educator, and activist.

    We are beyond grateful that Tim is a San Francisco Bay Times columnist. He is a consummate professional and a considerate team player. Even during his busiest weeks, he has never missed a deadline and is always watching out for others. He somehow packs what seems like 48 hours or more of work into a single day. It is therefore little wonder that when he and others speak of his forthcoming retirement, they frequently mention that it will be done “Seelig-style,” referring not only to his drive and productivity, but also to his generosity in helping and mentoring others.

    This interview, as an example, took place at 4:30 am on a very hectic work day as Tim and other SFGMC members fended off a barrage of homophobic attacks from the far-right. He could have said no to the interview, but in typical, thoughtful Tim fashion, he was there for us … and for you.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are some of the most memorable moments for you with SFGMC, looking back over the past decade?

    Tim Seelig: The most memorable moments have been both small and large. One of those moments came early on when a sweet mom of a student at Harvey Milk Academy showed up at our office. She described the huge need the parents club had raising money for things the kids needed that were not in the SFUSD budget. We told her if she could get the volunteers, they could stand outside our concerts and collect money. The most memorable moment came when one of our staff members handed me the slip of paper at the final holiday concert at the Castro with the total raised. It was over $35,000! I almost fainted.

    Another of the most memorable moments was definitely my very first concert with SFGMC, titled “Words.” As is always the case, there was great anticipation of a change of artistic leadership and what that would look, feel, and, most importantly, sound like. It was magic. I truly think that first concert out of the chute (as we say in Texas) set the tone for the ten years to follow. The third simply had to be our 40th Anniversary concert at St. Ignatius. It was filled with incredible emotion as we remembered those lost, and looked to the future.

    San Francisco Bay Times: How do you feel that SFGMC has evolved and changed since the time when you first started with the chorus as Artistic Director? 

    Tim Seelig: This decade has been incredible—for the chorus, and for our LGBTQ+ community. In the big picture, we all benefited from huge strides in our work toward equality. Set against that backdrop, the chorus found itself on the fast track as well. I feel it was ready when I got here to do even more big things. I didn’t know they were going to be huge things. One of the biggest things that has happened is not visible to our patrons, but certainly is to the membership. We could not have sustained 300 members without huge internal processes. We developed a massive committee structure to make the family work in order to make singing a joy. Today, over 100 singers serve on committees, everything from the Leadership Team to the Easy Bake Coven!

    San Francisco Bay Times: Your incredible career extends far beyond what you have achieved with the SFGMC. What are some highlights for you, outside of your work here in San Francisco? 

    Tim Seelig: I was lucky very early on in my conducting to have been asked to write a book on choral technique by the world’s largest music publisher, Hal Leonard Corporation. It went on to be a best seller and was followed by 8 more books and DVDs. This put me in a position to be able to conduct and teach to straight choruses all over the country. I have been incredibly lucky to be able to conduct at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for the last 25 years. One of my last conducting gigs 3 weeks before the pandemic was the national women’s honor choir at Carnegie Hall. The other, and perhaps most enriching for me, is conducting high school students at All-State Choirs around the country. Fourteen hours of rehearsal in 3 days leading to a performance. One that stands out is South Dakota. Their All-State Choir has 1,000 singers in it! The concert draws about 5,000 people from all over the state.

    The real exciting thing about all of that is the introduction of me as conductor and my bio in the program. Tens of thousands of straight folks from coast to coast are introduced to a big old gay conductor—maybe for the first time.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We agree with others that there is a “signature Tim Seelig sound.” How do you describe it, and what do you think led to it?

    Tim Seelig: When I went to college to study music, I proudly announced that I wanted to be an opera singer. I truly had no idea what that meant, but once I said it there was no turning back. With single-minded focus, I set out to make that happen. Fifteen years and 4 college degrees later (one from Austria), at 33, I made it with a full-time opera job in Switzerland. At 35, I came out and the opera career turned into waving my arms at gays! When I came to the act of conducting and teaching a chorus how to sing, I just didn’t know better than to use my own training as the model for the chorus. What resulted was a chorus with a big male choral sound. I used to play recordings of Russian choruses for my own choir to emulate. From the very beginning with the Turtle Creek Chorale, the sound was unique.

    We recently celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the 1981 National Tour. In preparation for that tour, the brand-new chorus made a recording to sell along the way. It is gorgeous. Once again, that first group of men set the trajectory of the chorus: extraordinary music. Each of the subsequent conductors has put his or her mark on that music-making.

    San Francisco Bay Times: You’ve mentioned that “music is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end.” Please explain more about that. 

    Tim Seelig: This is a broad brush, but in the straight choral world, the goal is musical perfection (that is, for the most part, unattainable). The choruses chosen to perform at conventions are excellent and boring. The one exception is church choirs and, since that was my experience, I naturally saw the music was used in the church service to warm people’s hearts to get them ready for the sermon—or the offering plate! When I moved to conducting LGBTQ+ choruses, that idea that music could move peoples’ hearts stuck with me. There is always an end in mind when making music. We want to touch people. We also want to move the needle of acceptance.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are your hopes for SFGMC moving into the next decade?

    Tim Seelig: Toward the end of this past decade with the chorus, the world has completely changed. We have had the trifecta of Trump, COVID, and massive social unrest. All three of these have changed how we will look at the next decade and what will happen. The chorus is on the precipice of huge change as it responds to all the things happening in our world. Most importantly, the chorus is undergoing a complete DEI study—from top to bottom. I don’t have to hope, because I know that the chorus is going to look different and will absolutely remain on the very forefront of music and mission.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We are excited about the 2021–2022 season, your final one with the chorus. Please share more about what is being planned for this important season.

    Tim Seelig: There is one great thing about conducting your final season—ever! I get to program some best of moments. Holidays are just insane, one blockbuster after another. The spring brings my final huge world premiere: Songs of the Phoenix. Our friend and Broadway composer Andrew Lippa has curated a list of 12 lyricists and composers from every possible cultural background, orientation, and age diversity. There are voices new and familiar. There are some just waiting to be discovered. And then there are the tried-and-true friends Stephen Schwartz, Andrew Lippa, and Stephen Sondheim. The final blowout will include the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and BARS (Bay Area Symphony Orchestra). Then, breathe.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We loved hearing that you plan to do freelance conducting gigs once your time with the chorus ends. What would be some dream gigs for you in future? 

    Tim Seelig: This part of my future is something I’ve been doing “on the side” for these past 34 years. I look forward to conducting “the kids” in things such as the All-State Choirs and teaching the teachers at conventions and workshops.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What else do you hope to do once the 2021–2022 season ends? We’re thrilled and grateful that you’ll be continuing your column for the San Francisco Bay Times.

    Tim Seelig: I keep saying I am going to just sit somewhere pretty and breathe for maybe 6 months. I just got my first invitation to do a weekend workshop in Kansas in the fall of 2022, so that sitting and relaxing will have to be Seelig-style … short and sweet.

    The decade has been staggering—from my most proud accomplishment, the Artists Portal at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, to the new building, and from the Lavender Pen Tour to Gay Chorus Deep South. We created six major new choral works. But, to be really cheesy and quote a gay anthem, the decade, for me, is truly “measured in love.” It’s the friendships, the community of the chorus, the joys, and the heartaches we have all shared. The music facilitates that for us. That is what I will miss most.

    Colleagues, Friends, and Admirers Share Thoughts About Dr. Tim Seelig

    “Tim has been a driving force in the evolution of our movement. His passion for artistic excellence has driven our choruses to new heights and his connections outside the LGBTQ choral world have enhanced our visibility. Under Tim’s leadership, the Turtle Creek Chorale and San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus have commissioned new music and films that eloquently tell our stories to millions around the world. New talent will appear on the scene, but Tim’s imprint on the LGBT choral movement will live on for generations.”

    Robin L. Godfrey, Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) Executive Director

    “For the past decade, Tim brought and shared his passion for music and mission to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in dramatic ways. He is a master storyteller and deftly takes the audience on a journey at every concert evoking his signature TLC: ‘tears, laughter and chill bumps.’ With his unique combination of good humor and unparalleled mastery of choral pedagogy, he has raised the musical bar for SFGMC to heights of which we had only dreamed.”

    Michael Tate, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Member and President of the Board of GALA Choruses

    “Anyone who’s seen Tim Seelig in concert with his chorus knows that he has the soul of a musician, the sass of a true activist, and the flawless timing of a standup comic.”

    Armistead Maupin, Author of the Tales of the City series

    “No life is easy, and Tim Seelig’s amazing life has had more than its share of vicissitudes and tragedies, as well as triumphs … Tim is someone I feel fortunate to know and proud to have worked with.”

    Stephen Schwartz, Musical Theater Lyricist and Composer

    “[Tim Seelig reminds us] that it’s never too late to be who you are. He reminds us that in this discovery there is only the truth of real happiness. As Tim discovers who he is, we begin to celebrate who we truly are.”

    Sheila Nevins, Television Producer and Head of MTV Documentary Films division of MTV Studios

    “Spanning seven decades, his story is a powerful account of personal struggle, complicated love, and spiritual liberation.”

    Cleve Jones, Activist, Lecturer, Author, and Conceiver of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt

    “The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus will flourish after Tim’s mighty leadership concludes. The sign of all great leaders is exactly this: leave things better than when you started, influence the organization to keep growing in your absence, be proud and know you taught them and helped them reach their goals so they can set new, higher ones. This is the legacy of Dr. Timothy Seelig. He is friend, mentor, teacher, leader, and forever, musician.”

    Andrew Lippa, Composer, Lyricist, Performer, Author, and Producer

    Published on July 15, 2021