Ken Forney- Changing the World Through Music
by Danny Atwater
It is July in Denver, Colorado. Perfect Harmony is attending its third GALA Festival and it shares the stage with its brother chorus, City of Festivals Men's Chorus, of Milwaukee. The music builds- "There is a way to..." The dynamics increase- "there is a way to..." An accelerando- "there is a way to, there is a way to..." Shimmering musical ecstasy- "Glory!" The final notes of Gwyneth Walker's "There is a Way To Glory" hang in the air as the audience holds their breath, then erupts into applause and a standing ovation; a fitting final performance for Perfect Harmony's visionary Artistic Director. For twenty years, Ken Forney has been "leading the way to glory" for the LGBT choral movement in Wisconsin.
Ken was a founding singer of PHMC in the late nineties. In 1999, founding Artistic Director Clay Jones fell ill and died from complications from AIDS. With assistance, Ken helped PHMC continue on through the tragic loss of their leader, and became a musical leader within the organization. Graduating from Assistant Director, to Co-Artistic Director, and eventually to Artistic Director, Ken has helped foster not only the musical growth of the Perfect Harmony, but has also helped commission, create, and celebrate new musical works, and helped assemble collaborative concerts with other choral groups.
In 2007, Perfect Harmony commissioned two new works for its 10th Anniversary, "Things That Never Die" and "Tomorrow, God Willing." The following year, PHMC made its debut performance in front of international audiences at GALA Festival in Miami, Florida. In 2009, Ken's artistic vision for the social justice oriented show "Equal, Not Special" came together with songs about slavery in the US, women's suffrage, women's rights, and LGBT rights.
To celebrate PHMC's 15th Anniversary, Ken conceived the idea for a uniquely Mid-western musical work. With many of the larger LGBT choral works coming from the coasts, he set his sights on telling the stories of the lives of gay men in the Midwest. Composer and PHMC member Arthur Durkee won the commission and created Heartlands, which told not only about growing up and living as a gay man in the Midwest, but also about the individual lives of Perfect Harmony's own singers. Selected music from Heartlands was performed in 2012 in Denver, Colorado at PHMC's second GALA Festival, this time singing with Milwaukee's City of Festivals Men's Chorus as a combined chorus. Ken was also the producer of the professional recording and CD of Heartlands.
In 2013, with marriage equality on the tip of everyone's tongue, Ken assembled the crowd-pleasing "On the Road to Marriage Equality" concert. With a Seussian script by Edward Anderson, this show followed the musical journey of two men taking a road trip across America before finally getting married in Washington State by "Our Lady of the Space Needle." One year later, Wisconsin would celebrate marriage equality, and the following year, the entire country. It seems likely, at least to all of us, that Ken made this happen! (Thanks, Ken!)
The only way to top a top-notch show like that was to revisit a core work of LGBT choral literature- Naked Man. In the spring of 2014, Ken brought in Dr. Stan Hill, former Artistic Director of the San Francisco and Twin Cities Gay Men's Choruses, to help teach the music and explain the importance and relevance of the music. Dr. Hill was the commissioning director of Naked Man, which tells the stories of the men of the San Francisco chorus in the early-mid nineties. This forward-thinking work takes an unapologetic look at topics of love, death, bullying, AIDS, transgender issues, religion, and family. Ken once again assembled the singers of Perfect Harmony and City of Festivals Men's Choruses to tackle the emotionally charged music. Two concerts were performed in Madison and Milwaukee, accompanied by a twenty-piece community orchestra.
The two choruses collaborated a handful of other times, thanks in part to the fact that Ken held the Artistic Director position for both choruses (He retains his AD position with CoFMC). Other notable performances together included "It Gets Better" - a touring show with members of the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus, "A Mighty Voice" - this show brought together not only PHMC and CoFMC, but also OneVoice Mixed Chorus from Minnesota, "That Sixties Show" - our hit spring concert featuring all your favorite music of the 1960s, and most recently "We Sing As One" - a benefit concert for the Watertown High School Gay-Straight Alliance.
Ken Forney has dedicated twenty years of his career as a musician to Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus. His commitment to the chorus' mission (to create, enrich, and transform community through music), to the LGBT choral movement, and to social justice and equal rights is commendable and something for which we are forever grateful. As Perfect Harmony takes the next step in its journey, we carry the torch that Ken has lit for us and for future generations.
Ken continues his personal mission in service to the larger community. He currently serves as Artistic Director for City of Festivals Men's Chorus (Milwaukee), Director of Music Ministry at Bristol Lutheran Church (Sun Prairie), and works at Community Shares of Wisconsin (Madison).