The young players gathered for rehearsal only twice, in the two nights before the Queer Songbook Orchestra’s annual holiday benefit concert. But it was enough time to create an easy rapport among themselves, exchange Instagram account details and track four different ways the adults told them to receive applause.

Music students as young as 10 years old and up to university-level study joined the professional musicians of Toronto-based Queer Songbook Orchestra ahead of the newly incorporated non-profit’s annual fundraiser happening Tuesday evening, tuning up and running through the four-song playlist they have planned.

Celebrating often untold stories of queer excellence, the impromptu nature of the performance adds to the sense of close community and familiarity of the unique project, founded by Shaun Brodie in 2014, according to several musicians who take part year after year and spoke with Canada’s National Observer.

“It’s not just about the music,” said Micajah Sturgess (Micajah rhymes with papaya), Brodie’s former housemate and longtime member of the troupe, which records and performs orchestral versions of popular songs that resonate with LGBTQ communities. “It’s about the gathering of like-minded people together in a supportive way that fosters this safe community.”

QSO currently provides around 50 queer and allied, mostly teenage students from across the Greater Toronto Area with access to mentorship and representation from a mostly queer and fully professional volunteer orchestra.

“That I think is really rare,” said Sturgess, who is currently performing the Nutcracker with the National Ballet of Canada. “We’re lucky if we find our people.”

French horn player Micajah Sturgess (second from left) and QSO founder Shaun Brodie (on right) rehearse with two members of the youth orchestra ahead of their 2022 holiday benefit concert while parents watch on. Photo by Maysa Astolpho

Sturgess, who plays the French horn, said it was “so disappointing” when the Omicron wave of the pandemic forced QSO to cancel its live show last holiday season.

This year’s host, Matt Nethersole, added that many of the working musicians reserve time in their schedule to take part, including some who travel from Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and elsewhere.

“We’re lucky if we find our people,” French horn player @MicajahSturgess tells @5thEstate, about @queersongbook, an orchestra uplifting 2SLGBTQ+ experience in Toronto

"It's very good vibes, a very singular experience," they said.

The group was focused on a planned show at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in summer 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, causing Brodie to refocus on fostering local youth talent.

This past summer, the QSO collaborated with trans elder and internationally renowned musician Beverly Glenn Copeland (known as Glenn to his friends at QSO), connecting him with the youth symphony over a handful of practices that culminated in a live performance at Yonge-Dundas Square as part of the Luminato festival in June.

Tuesday’s performance will include the combined adult and youth group reprising their summer performance of ‘Colour of Anyhow’ (a song of Glenn’s from the 1970s) as well as ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,’ Dolly Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas’ (a standard of the regular QSO holiday shows) and close the night with sing-along ballad ‘Every One of Us’ from the Muppets and John Denver’s Christmas album.

Members of the Queer Songbook Orchestra practice 'I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas' at a rehearsal ahead of their holiday benefit concert. Video by Morgan Sharp

At the end of the second and final rehearsal it was made clear to all that once its final notes ring out all players will stand to receive applause before the adults sit and youth are recognized specifically.

“I’ve really gained a lot of inspiration and knowledge,” Miata Massaquoi Duke, a Grade 5 student at Montcrest School and youngest member of the youth contingent, said afterwards. “It’s just really good to watch someone who’s older because you get, like, hope, but in a different way. It speaks to you in a different way.”

Miata Massaquoi Duke looks out while playing violin with the Queer Songbook Orchestra. Photo by Maysa Astolpho

Miata’s mother, Alison Duke, said playing in the youth ensemble was a great experience for her child, who has played the violin for seven years.

“This is a great space and environment for young players like Miata, it’s really important for young people to be in a group where they feel like they have a family, that they have their tribe, and that they can grow in a safe space,” she said.

Miata Massaquoi Duke and Alison Duke both said the Queer Songbook Orchestra provides a welcome space for Miata to perform. Photo by Morgan Sharp

The two rehearsal sessions this week follow several months of planning for Brodie, who has invited special guests to share stories of their experiences around the holidays, an often fraught time for queer people dealing with complicated family dynamics, and connect that story to a song the QSO then performs.

“The idea of an ensemble like this feels like a safe space where they could really be themselves and combine those two parts of themselves, their love of music and their own identity,” Brodie said.

Many of the students who complete their online intake form say it feels safe to be out as themselves in the group in a way they might not be in their high school ensemble.

“We all have like, cried on stage, listening to the narrators tell their personal stories, and that happens again and again, and it's just like every time we play,” said Stefan Schneider, a drummer with QSO who travelled from his home in Montreal to take part and says everyone involved is all in.

"There's definitely no other ensemble that I play in that is quite like this," he said of the passion project. “It's about sharing the beauty and the stories and widening the family, the Queer Songbook family, including the audience, you know.”

Adult and youth members of the QSO rehearse at the 519 community centre in Toronto on Dec. 19, 2022. Photo by Maysa Astolpho

Looking to expand youth repertoire, range

With more sustainable funding, Brodie said he’d like QSYO to meet regularly and develop the repertoire, guided even more by the participating youth deciding what music to play and stories to tell. He is also looking to expand it to other cities that could sustain and welcome it, such as Vancouver and Montreal in Canada and then others elsewhere.

“What we're offering is a new avenue for queer and trans and non-binary, questioning and allied youth to be engaged in a music project that is a bit different from what is typically on offer for teenagers and students, where we're directly engaging in representation of queer experience.”

He said there is a lot of similar material to mine, he said, such as the often-occluded contribution of composer Bill Strayhorn to the reputation of jazz legend Duke Ellington.

Strayhorn, an openly gay Black man, wrote several of Ellington’s popular works, including ‘Take The A Train’, from the relative safety of Ellington’s shadow. After he died of cancer in the 1960s Ellington recorded a collection of Strayhorn’s compositions titled ‘And His Mother Called Him Bill.’

“That’s been a big part of our mandate from the beginning, bringing to light these unknown narrative or untold stories,” Brodie said. “Oftentimes the music is known, but the story behind it isn't.”

(The event takes place at the Opera House at 735 Queen St East on Tuesday Dec. 20 at 7:30pm, tickets can be purchased here)

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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