Monday is not an average night in Cecil Sharp House. Then again, the London Gay Men's Chorus are not an average choir. Once a week, this old north London music hall, accustomed to the anodyne pleasures of post-school woodwind practice, bursts into life. In one corner, a small choir runs through some demanding Poulenc; downstairs, the costume man is putting some finishing touches to the "three queens" nativity outfits; and centre stage, a choreographer puts a willing but not always step-perfect dance troupe through their paces.
Rehearsal nights for this ensemble are traditionally joyous affairs, but this week, they have a little extra spice: on Saturday, the LGMC are performing the biggest concert in their 13-year history, a sold-out 2,000-seater at the Barbican, suitably entitled Make the Yuletide Gay. I have turned up to join in rehearsals.
"We always give it the full tits and teeth," says LGMC musical director Charlie Beale, "and that's why people love us." One might expect Beale, a professional musician who teaches at the Guildhall School of Music, to look a little frayed. But as performance night looms, he is staying remarkably calm. Indeed, Beale senses a real opportunity with the Barbican concert. It will be the first time that the choir have performed in the massive venue in an independently produced show. More importantly, though, the audience will not be predominantly gay. "It's going to be very interesting to see what kind of reaction we get," Beale admits with a sparkle. "I think we're getting a few busloads in from Tunbridge Wells."
Amid all this excitement, it is easy to overlook the fact that the LGMC are first and foremost a serious choir. When I get chatting to long-time member and organiser Steve Bustin in the makeshift wardrobe room, he admits: "Initially we were booked because we were a novelty act, but now we're booked because we're seriously good." This is much more than idle bragging, as a string of glowing reviews from around the world will testify. And all this from a choir which claims to have never turned down a willing new member - although it emerges that one or two particularly tone-deaf participants have been encouraged to take on "more administrative roles".
So how does Beale manage this rag-bag of musical ability? "We have rehearsal CDs - about half the group can't read music at all. We do a lot by ear, we do lots in small groups, and we have musical support groups. There are 160 guys, a bit of a super-tanker of an institution, so there's a huge amount to organise."
For an amateur voluntary group, this seems like a serious volume of work for anyone to undertake. But every chorus member falls over themselves to tell me that it's all been worthwhile. "For me, it's fantastic. My personal life and my professional life come together," explains Beale. "Also, it's a community group, we are genuinely inclusive, and that's important." Paul a 10-year veteran of the LGMC, and Ben, a two-month new boy, echo these sentiments. "It's wonderful to do something in the gay community that's non-scene," says Paul, "to meet people outside of bars and clubs." Ben agrees: "I think it's the fact that it's a totally gay environment. This group is all about the singing, but it's also all about gay men mixing in a comfortable environment."
Ben and Paul also point out that many lasting relationships are forged through the team ethos of the LGMC. Due to the sprawling nature of the choir, many responsibilities have to be delegated to senior figures within the organisation, particularly when it comes to learning music. "The more experienced people help out the less experienced," says Paul. "I mean, there are some people who wouldn't know what way round to hold sheet music, so we need to help each other out." The music support group has its advantages socially too. Ben says: "We often go out for a drink as a section. So baritones with baritones, tenors with tenors. There is some cross-pollination though - I'm a bass and I go out with the baritones."
And the communal aspects of the group don't stop there. The democratic ethos dictates that every member can have a say in what the choir sings, and, through a rigorously organised committee structure, social or artistic problems can be ironed out.
In repertoire terms, chorus input has meant that the LGMC have chosen an eclectic, striking range of music, and resisted the temptation to do exclusively "gay" singing. "I mean, we're gay, but in terms of repertoire, we're not making a mockery of it. Why would we?" So, anyone turning up to the Barbican on Saturday expecting wall-to-wall high camp will be in for a rude awakening. "I think when people first hear about us, they think that it's just a bunch of queens mincing around doing show tunes," says Paul, "but then we shock them." Starting with a first half of traditional Christmas music, including some challenging multi-part singing, should be enough to please the more traditional audience that Beale expects, while a razzle-dazzling second half will ensure that the choir "do not alienate their core supporters".
While the quality of the LGMC's artistic output has ensured that they have delighted this core support, the choir's founding fathers have also been savvy enough to realise that a high media profile is also necessary to reach a wide audience. Lucky for the Gay Men's Chorus, then, that many of their members are familiar with the UK's media whirligig, as they count ex-BBC editors, PR officers and web designers among their number.
Paul recalls that when he joined the choir, four years after its inception, the organisers were actively "building an image and a reputation for ourselves". That early work has been followed up in recent years by fostering an array of press contacts in the UK and abroad, and creating the LGMC website. Still, for most new members, word of mouth and musical involvement is still the best route to the choir. "My work was sponsoring a concert," recalls Ben, "so I went to see it, thinking 'what is this?' Then I asked someone, and they were so helpful. I joined in the next new intake."
Joining in with the London Gay Men's Chorus, I discovered, is a revelatory experience. And, like all the best amateur organisations, it has the capacity to change the lives of its members. For Charlie Beale, the choir has a special place in London's gay community: "There are a lot of single people and lonely people on the gay scene. This music brings people together in a way that the sum of the choir is so much bigger than its parts."
Beale feels that Saturday's concert is a huge expression of the choir's importance, and for that alone it deserves our patronage. More importantly, he says, "we're the only choir I know that employs a choreographer". Enough said.
'Make the Yuletide Gay', Barbican Centre, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 18 DecemberReuse content