David Bielenberg (pictured below) became executive director of Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) this month — the first ever in the group’s 37-year history. In his teen years, Bielenberg sang in school musicals and church choirs, later establishing himself in the LGBTQ choral movement. He has more than two decades of experience as an arts director and administrative roles for performing arts organizations in Baltimore, New Haven (CT) and New York City. Bielenberg has also served as executive director of the Station North Arts & Entertainment District in Baltimore City and, more recently, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C.
The Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus traces its history to 1981 when founder Gerald Davis and three other members toured Philly’s gay bars at Christmastime, singing carols. According to the organization’s website, the chorus gave its first official concert performance on April 25, 1982 at the DCA club, now known as Voyeur.
How does it feel to become the first executive director of the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus?
I feel both proud and humbled. Proud to be chosen to help strengthen and grow the Chorus and expand its work in the community, and humbled to follow in the footsteps of the many volunteers and previous staff members who have brought the organization to this point in its history.
What will be your duties?
As executive director, my role will be to lead and direct all of the administrative aspects of the organization such as fundraising, marketing, and financial management.
Tell us how you became interested in the LGBTQ choral movement.
My love for choral music began as a young man when I sang with my church’s men and boys’ choir, as well as with school choirs. I first became familiar with the LGBTQ choral movement through the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC (GMCW) where I served as executive director for five years. That experience inspired me to further study and write about the LGBTQ choral movement as part of my master’s degree in arts administration.
Who were your mentors and role models growing up?
I’ve had a number of mentors and role models who have inspired and supported me. My choir director growing up, Randy Mullin, inspired me both musically and as an openly gay man. Pamela Tatge, one of my first bosses, taught me so much about arts administration and the vital importance of a solid framework of fundraising and marketing required to support the creative process. Other mentors and role models are less known to me personally, but just as important – those pioneers of the gay rights and LGBTQ choral movement who have led the way to where, today, I can take on this exciting opportunity and lead PGMC into a new era.
What is the organization’s vision for growing the group and enhancing its diversity.?
PGMC’s vision is for “a community that celebrates differences and a chorus that inspires change,” and our mission is to “entertain audiences, support communities, and foster acceptance through exceptional musical performance.” Both of these emphasize our commitment to celebrating and enhancing diversity.
Our recently adopted strategic plan further identifies diversity as one of four priority areas for the chorus to focus on the next few years. While we honor our history as a Gay Men’s Chorus, and what that meant 37 years ago, today we welcome and embrace ALL who share our vision to inspire change, regardless of gender or sexual orientation/identity. PGMC welcomes everyone.
What are your hopes for PGMC to make a splash on a larger scale?
I would love to see PGMC taking its message of hope and acceptance to communities outside of Philadelphia throughout the state of Pennsylvania and beyond. In Philadelphia, I would love to see PGMC grow to the point where we can sell out a performance at the Kimmel Center. Throughout the metropolitan area, I would love for our in-school performances to increase and expand. And finally, I would love to see PGMC commissioning new work by LGBTQ+ composers.
What are you focusing on right now in your work?
I feel an incredibly strong commitment to diversity right now, and the fact that PGMC has made that a priority in its strategic plan is one of the reasons I was so interested in this position. As a gay man growing up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, I felt both the pain of being different and also the joy of seeing gay rights advance socially and politically. Using that experience to now help support others in a similar way inspires me. In a small way, it’s a chance to return the favor of the gift I was given – to ensure that there is a place at the table for everyone.
What were the most important skills and lessons you learned in your development as an executive director?
One of the most critical and important skills I’ve learned as an executive director, and a musician, is to listen to and work with others. One of the wonderful things about choral music is that it involves a group of individuals working together to create something beautiful and more than what each person could create by themselves. I find that to be true of leading an organization, especially an organization like PGMC. While I might oversee and direct the administrative work, I don’t do it alone. Everyone is important and a vital participant in creating a strong organization.
How have changes in technology affected your work in the past twenty years?
Technology has allowed a great amount of flexibility in how we communicate with each other, and also in how I work. Social media, even email, has transformed the way we connect and communicate with others. But it has also made interpersonal, face-to-face connections even more important.
The community that PGMC creates is vital to reminding us of our humanness, our need for interaction. Experiencing a live, in-person performance of the chorus is different from seeing a YouTube video of it. Technology can never replace that experience. That said, it does allow us to reach some people that we might not otherwise have been able to reach. The challenge is to use technology to augment and support our work, not to replace the interpersonal connections that come from sharing our stories through song in person.
What one piece of advice would you offer to a young aspiring chorus administrator?
Always remember why we do what we do: we sing to share our stories. The fundraising, marketing, and finances are all to support that. In the end, it’s all about using our voices to inspire change.
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