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Stephen Bowness: One final bow

Posted in: Community
By - 23rd February 2016

Stephen Bowness has sung in cathedral choirs from the age of ten, joining the GALS choir before the turn of the new millennium, he has now, for the final time, taken to the stage to conduct his last show with the group.

 
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Born in Nottinghamshire in England just over 50 years ago, Stephen moved to New Zealand at age 16 and has lived in Auckland ever since. Having sung in cathedral choirs since age ten, he is a man of many talents and has also officiated sport, umpiring cricket for a few years, starting at school before shifting to American Football in 1996, later becoming the first openly gay person to referee an international match.

How did you first get involved with GALS?

I joined in 1999. I hadn’t sung in a choir since I left the Cathedral Choir in 1994 and was ready to start up again. I wanted to meet people (as well as ‘meet’ people, although it took 12 years before my now-fiance Fil came along) and GALS seemed like a good fit. I started off just singing but my predecessor, Margaret Robertson, found out that I’d conducted the Cathedral Choir on occasion and I was soon asked to take the men’s sectional rehearsals and then conduct them in the concerts. I took over from Margaret when she left the choir at the end of 2000.

Did you grow up in a musically talented family?

My father’s side of the family is. Dad sang operetta (Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein) for all his adult life until he retired. My grandmother played the piano and my grandfather the violin. He also sang in his local male voice choir all of his life. It’s certainly in the genes.

What does it feel like to stand up centre stage and conduct the choir?

It’s a wonderful feeling, although I don’t always get to hear the choir from the best spot. You hope that the audience is getting the best sound but the acoustics of many buildings that we sing in don’t give the conductor that privilege. It’s also hard work as you’re listening intently to make sure that everything is happening as it should, you’re trying to make sure that the beat is at the right speed and is consistent and that you’re giving help to anyone who needs it. You need to be conscious of what signals you’re sending out. Body language is incredibly important and choirs of all levels, especially amateur ones, can be influenced quite strongly by something as simple as which way you hold your hands. The great teacher of choral conductors, Rodney Eichenberger, wrote that “what they see is what you get” and can demonstrate that really well, getting what he wants from a choir simply with his gestures.

I used to get really nervous at concerts but experience helps with that. In recent years I’ve tended to get more nervous about 4-6 weeks away from a concert as I’m gauging whether we will get there and trying to work out what still needs to be done and which pieces need to be dropped. There are weeks and weeks of hard work preparing for a concert and the primary responsibility is to make sure that what goes out in the performance is equally rewarding for both choir and audience.

The best thing, though, is having the opportunity to present wonderful music to an audience and to see their response to it. Music can move people in all sorts of ways and it’s a great feeling when you see people smiling or even crying. As long as people are touched in some way, you’ve done your job. The same is true of the choir itself. They also respond in the same way and it’s extremely rewarding to perform great music, whether it be by ‘proper’ composers like Eric Whitacre or great songwriters like Stephen Sondheim or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and to see the joy of doing it in the faces of the choir and knowing that they have been touched by it too.

What has been a highlight of your time with the choir?

Other than meeting Fil, there are so many. There are the international appearances. I’ll never forget my first one when 24 of us sang in a sold-out Sydney Opera House at the Gay Games in 2002. We’ve also sung at events in Melbourne and Dublin and some of the choir have sung in the US and Germany. I’ve got to know many people from other choirs and built some friendships that will last forever. Every time we’ve been determined to take New Zealand music to the world. It’s been a real privilege to work with New Zealand composers and particularly with David Hamilton. I’ve known David for a number of years and he has written eight works for the choir, seven of them during my time, and rearranged one other for us. Many of them have been gifts to us. There are few choirs who are in the most fortunate position of having a world-class composer writing for them, particularly one who knows the choir so well and tailors the music to us.

The second Out and Loud Festival, held in Auckland in 2010, was another. It’s a tremendous thrill to conduct a choir of 200+ people. I was so excited about it that I didn’t sleep a wink for the two nights before. GALS was at the absolute top of its game at the concert and I was incredibly proud of them. These events are not competitions but…

We also had a significant presence at Sing Aotearoa (the New Zealand Choral Federations three-yearly gathering) in 2013 when we were one of the hardest working choirs there. We had 4 gigs, both lunchtime recitals around Rotorua and singing in the foyer at the main venue for the other choirs during the breaks.

We’ve worked with some fabulous guests and I have a real soft spot for Buffy and Bimbo, despite everything they’ve done to me over the years. It’s been a real privilege to work with them. They are so good at what they do and I hope a little bit of their professionalism has rubbed off on us. We’ve also had help from some incredibly talented people like choreographer Jude Froude who did a number of routines for us, most notably an absolutely bonkers version of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. Tim Bray, a former member of the choir, has also made a huge contribution over the years, particularly with our pantomime “Yay! Boo! Hiss!” in 2005.

The moment I will never forget though, was just one of our regular concerts. We were singing “Danny Boy” in a lovely arrangement by Philip Lawson. The father of one of our current co-chairs, Heather, Eric McDowell, who sadly died last year, was sitting at the end of the front row and I was conducting right next to him. Now, Eric was a staunch Irishman. The choir sang it absolutely beautifully and at the end of the piece I heard a sniff from Eric and he quickly grasped my hand as he wiped away a tear with his other. To touch someone so deeply is what it is all about.

What role does the choir play in the community?

The choir is an important part of the community, although the reason for that has changed over the years. 15 years ago, many of the social reforms that we benefit from now, like marriage equality, were still being fought for and the choir was there as part of that fight. Then, as each milestone was reached, we helped to celebrate it. Now, we seem to be providing music for events which recognise our place within the wider community, whether it be a wedding, the annual AIDS Candlelight Memorial or Westpac’s recent launch of their You Being You campaign, encouraging diversity in the workplace. Through all of that, though, we’ve tried to provide a safe and supportive environment for anyone who might need it.



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- 23rd February 2016