Entertainment » Music

Freedom of expression in pearls and leather

by Masha Gutkin
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Feb 29, 2008

Roberto-Juan Gonz?lez had been conducting orchestras and ensembles for the better part of four decades, but it was only after decades in the closet that he was able to fully unleash his artistic energy.

"Since I came out, I find the flow of my energy as an artist is a lot cleaner," he told Edge in a recent interview.

Gonz?lez, born and raised in Puerto Rico, was in a 25-year-long monogamous, heterosexual marriage until 2005. As he expressed it, "April Fool's Day was the divorce. I came out of the closet April 5, with the massage."

Gonz?lez, 52 years old at the time, was caring for his dying mother when his wife and best friend filed for divorce. He said it felt like everything was "exploding around me...everything exploding in my head."

So he said he asked himself two questions. "The major question, 'What do you want to be happy?'" he said. "The biggest question of all, 'Who am I really?'"

He got on the phone and called a gay masseur. "There was a happy ending," he said. "From that point on my life gets really really happy, in addition to gay."

Gonz?lez quickly began getting involved in the San Francisco leather and music communities after coming out, and then they intersected. In August 2005, he got a phone call from an erotic novelist in San Francisco. The novelist needed a conductor for a performance of the San Francisco Concerto Orchestra together with a literary reading. "Next thing I know," Gonz?lez said, "I'm conducting the orchestra dressed head to toe in leather." The successful concert led a San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band member to approach him, then and there, about applying for the directorship of the band to succeed Jadine Louie, who had recently resigned after a 10-year tenure with the band.

"I was blown away," he said of his first experience conducting the band. I could hear the energy coming from the horns. There's something unique and very, very special and very, very moving about the way this group plays.

"I think that there's something of value for this group, for these people who outwardly signify who they are."

Gonz?lez is the ninth director in the 30-year history of the Freedom Band, founded in 1978 by San Francisco legend Jon Sims. Band members said that although Gonz?lez' jocular exuberance can be jarring against the reserve of predecessor, the experience is distinctly positive.

Doug Litwin, secretary of the band, said, "Any time you make a change with someone who's been in a position in any organization...you're going to have some kind of an adaptation period. He does not lack for enthusiasm."

Gonz?lez has turned the repertory of the group, which is both a marching and a concert band, more in the classical music direction. He also is exploring reaching out to the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community. Publicity Officer and a band member since 1991, Heidi Beeler said that with Gonz?lez, "The band is going through a rejuvenation period...We've got some new members coming in. We've got a new saxophone group." She described Gonz?lez's exuberance as "refreshing."

Gonz?lez, who trained from a young age as a musician and conductor in Puerto Rico, got his doctorate in instrumental conducting and organ from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, in 1983. Since then, he has performed as an organist and conductor in the U.S., as well as Puerto Rico and Asia. He has been Music Director of the North Bay Philharmonic Orchestra at Napa College since 1988. Although currently on a leave of absence from that post to focus on his duties with the Freedom Band, he continues to teach in his capacity as professor of music at Napa College.

The band performs in four or five free community concerts and parades annually in addition to their popular annual Dance-Along-Nutcracker fundraiser in December. On March 14 the band will play a concert called "String of Pearls: What Else to Wear with Basic Black," with male soprano Don Tatro and featuring famous transgender performers Trauma Flintstone and Donna Sachet, all performing Gershwin and Victor Herbert standards. The concert will also showcase the debut of the band's new saxophone ensemble, Sax Offenders, performing the title selection. Keith Sklower, a frequent soloist on oboe, is featured this concert on English horn in opera composer Gaetano Donizetti's "Concertino for English Horn in G major."

"Working with any one of our three 'pearls' this set would be an honor, so working with all three at once is nothing less than amazing," said Gonz?lez. "Trauma was outstanding at the Dance-Along last December and it's always a pleasure to work with her. Donna is another one of the stellar performers in our community, and Don's voice is like liquid silver. This concert is a real treat."

"String of Pearls: What Else to Wear with Basic Black," San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 678 Portola Dr. March 14, 8 p.m. Free. (415) 255-1355 or www.sflgfb.org.

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