By David Shengold
Young tenor Brian Giebler, active in concert, opera and musicals, has lived in New York City with his husband of 8 years, attorney Jordan Peterson, since 2013. Recently, he has made recordings spanning four centuries of music.
In “A Lad’s Love,” which is a spirited CD collaboration with pianist Steven McGhee of English songs written by gay composers and poets — mainly but not exclusively from the early 20th century — Giebler has suddenly been propelled to greater recognition. The CD is nominated for a Best Classical Solo Vocal Album Grammy and he was named Musical America magazine’s January “Artist of the Month.”
Gay City News conducted an email exchange with the Syracuse-born singer. Here, slightly edited, is the exchange:
David Shengold: First, a Grammy Nomination — and now “Musical America Artist of the Month.” How are you feeling, Brian?
Brian Giebler: Besides being in shock, I actually feel re-inspired and reinvigorated! With the absolute shut down of the performance field due to the ongoing pandemic, it’s been hard to find motivation to practice or to look [ahead]. These nods have validated my work and beliefs as an artist. So it’s made me work even harder than before – to practice, research, and create new projects for future concerts and recordings.
Shengold: Did you have any idea, when working on “A Lad’s Love,” that it would have such resonance?
Giebler: All I have ever wanted to do is connect with my audience in a sincere, honest way. I treasure the personal connection of live performances, and I knew that would be missing for CD listeners. So I wanted to find repertoire for my first solo album that felt intimate and personal. I worked diligently with my pianist, the fabulous Steven McGhee, to nail just the right repertoire. We were fortunate to “test out” the program in front of live audiences on a small recital tour prior to the studio sessions. That gave us the perfect ability to see what repertoire resonated with the listener and what didn’t. But I honestly never dreamed the album would — or could — reach as many as it has in the way that it has. It’s an honor to share the deeply personal, almost hidden stories of love, longing, and struggle of the gay men who wrote these poems and music a century ago. I’m proud to have been a vessel for their art.
Shengold: What gave you the idea for “A Lad’s Love” and what was the process of assembling it, finding collaborators, and securing a contract?
Giebler: I had been through recording projects before as part of ensemble casts and choruses, so I knew the general gist of the process. But contract law, [making] masters, mechanical licensing, advertising, all of this was new! Developing the program, I was fortunate to have a great collaborator in Steve. I knew I wanted to record Ivor Gurney’s “Ludlow and Teme,” which Steve and I performed on my 2012 Master’s Degree recital. It felt apropos as a gay man to give voice to [the creators’] beautiful work, especially given the lack of freedoms they endured and the sad obscurity to which most of these pieces were ultimately consigned. But getting a concert grand Steinway, a performance hall, the best engineers and producers, a publicist, a lawyer, and a record label to commit? I didn’t know how to do any of it. Hence, I’m really proud of the amount of work I put into figuring out how to get this music out there from step one to this Grammy nomination!
Shengold: Is there any risk at this point for a young tenor to be as out as you are in professional life?
Giebler: Probably. But if I’m not owning who I am as a person, how can I portray honesty and sincerity onstage? Fortunately, I haven’t experienced any moments in my career where I wasn’t hired or was treated differently for being an out and proud gay man. I’ve even been hired several times to portray a straight man onstage — including the original straight man, the biblical Adam, in Julian Wachner’s “REV. 23” in January 2020, with appropriate costume. I’m lucky my sexuality has never hindered my acting abilities or my singing career!
Shengold: How did your time in England help shape “A Lad’s Love”?
Giebler: I enrolled for a semester at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I don’t know what spurred my love for England — maybe I was a Brit in a former life? — but I was dying to live in London! It was phenomenal to be able to realize that dream at the ripe age of 21. Ian Partridge was my song class lecturer. I was young, uninformed, and didn’t truly grasp my good fortune at ending up in Partridge’s class, but it was the turning point in my appreciation of and love for English song. At the Royal Academy I learned about Benjamin Britten and his wonderful music; I spent the next few years digging into more English songs — Purcell, Gurney, Ireland, Warlock and Quilter — many of which appear on my album.
Shengold: Did you find other related British material you may use in a different project? Could you envision a concert program or CD dedicated thematically to same-sex cathected songs by American poets and composers?
Giebler: There was so much more British material I could have used. I have a pitch out to an ensemble about a disc centering around a longer work by a British composer of the same time period not featured on this one. Fingers crossed. I would love to work on an American album of same-sex thematic songs. In that case, it would be even more interesting to work with gay living composers, like Nico Muhly, Gregory Spears, Jennifer Higdon and Ricky Ian Gordon. More operas have started to center around homosexual relationships (“Oscar,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “As One,” “Fellow Travelers”), which is really encouraging. It’d also be the perfect opportunity to mix in some musical theater as well: even more content to choose from in that genre. Of course, you can’t go wrong with Barber, Copland, and Bernstein as well!
Shengold: Please tell me something about Britten’s canticle “Abraham and Isaac.” Had you heard it performed by two male voices before? Have you worked with [assisting artist] Reginald Mobley in other contexts? Have you performed it as a duet with him (or other countertenors) live?
Giebler: There was no one else I wanted to do this with; we actually moved the recording dates to accommodate his schedule! Reggie and I have been friends and colleagues for probably six years. Singing with him has always meshed in a way that I thought would be really special on the Britten — not to mention my sheer admiration for his stunning talent, social activism, and amazing career. Sadly, Reggie and I haven’t had the chance to perform this live. I wish we could have had that chance at a proper release party, or a small recital tour of the album. I had originally heard and fallen in love with “Abraham and Isaac” [when it was] done with Ian Bostridge and David Daniels. I actually didn’t know it was originally written for a female alto, not a countertenor. It turns out many purists guffawed at the idea of two men singing it together!
Shengold: What were the real discoveries for you of the songs on the recording, and why?
Giebler: My biggest discovery was composer Ian Venables. It was never my intention to include the work of a living composer, but my manager introduced us, as hen is chair of the Ivor Gurney Society. Mr. Venables alerted me to a song cycle of his that — like Gurney’s — set A.E. Housman texts. This happened three weeks prior to the recording dates. My quintet and I decided to find time in the schedule to read down and include one of the pieces on the disc. “Because I Liked You Better” ended up the perfect way to close — first as a way to bring back a Housman text summing up the gay experience of the early 20th century (unrequited love), and then to bring in a thicker, richer modern English song texture, different from what you hear on most of the songs. I’m particularly proud of that piece. I only wish we had had time to do the full cycle; I hope I might be able to record more of some of his really beautiful, passionate music — his latest disc, “Love Lives Beyond the Tomb,” contains some real gems.
Shengold: How do you see things proceeding from here on? Do you have dream roles in opera or musical comedy?
Giebler: My favorite aspect of my career is the diversity of repertoire I’ve had the chance to perform. Week to week, I could be singing a 21st century opera with large orchestra in Boston one week, and then early 16th century French opera with small chamber baroque ensemble in Germany the next (yes, that happened). My voice teacher always keeps me fresh by reminding me to use “my voice” on everything I encounter, and to concentrate on performance practice when changing styles. I really hope I get the opportunity to sing more Handel. (I am dying to do La Resurrezione). Another role I would love to take on is Timothy Laughlin in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers. I’d also love to do some Mozart, sing more Bach Passions, and [do] a Britten opera or two. Why not some musical theater — Brigadoon, West Side Story, or anything by Jason Robert Brown or Adam Guettel? Some Broadway theater things that have really personally moved me: Kyle Soller’s affecting performance as Eric Glass in “The Inheritance,” Michael Urie in “Torch Song,” and William Finn’s [shows] “Falsettos” and “A New Brain.” To live out those types of roles onstage would be deeply meaningful.
Shengold: What pop artists among those also Grammy-nominated do you follow? Anyone with whom you’d want to collaborate? How will you be spending Grammy night?
Giebler: P¡nk’s 2010 performance singing “Glitter in the Air” where she performed an aerial routine blew me away. Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to Whitney in 2012 left me speechless. [And] Lady Gaga and Elton John’s 2015 collaboration! I’m a big fan of Gaga and her collaboration with another favorite, Ariana Grande, Rain on Me. Huge fan of John Legend (everything he does is filled with passion and intention). P!nk, John Legend, and Ariana Grande would be my dream pop collaborators. Sadly, this year won’t be the dreamed-of glamorous red carpet situation. I’ve chosen to keep it small and intimate, and celebrate with my husband, parents, and hopefully Steve. I still plan on dressing up (Armani suit jacket in hand, and yes, I will wear real tux pants, not pajamas — it’s the Grammys, after all). The nominees who win will be on screen in Zoom fashion, so I’ll be ready in case the unexpected happens!
This story first appeared on our sister publication gaycitnews.com.