By Tom Travis
Celebrating one year of performances, rehearsals and making music in Flint, the John Bradford Bohl LGBTQ Choir met at Good Beans Cafe on a chilly gray December Saturday.
They proceeded to observe the anniversary by doing what they do best: singing, caroling in Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood–in memory of the man whose life they honor.
A year ago in December 2018 a number of friends and singers and John Bradford Bohl’s parents launched a new choir. Brian and Dorie Barkey wished to carry on the musical tradition of their beloved son John who died in August, 2018. The choir is named in John’s honor.
The choir is directed by David Lindsey, director of music at Court Street United Methodist Church, vocal department chair at the Flint Institute of Music, and music teacher at Flint Cultural Center Academy, and music teacher in the Flint public schools.
In an interview the day of the caroling, Bohl’s mother along with his partner for the last eight years of his life, Rees Kirkorian, sat down with EVM to talk about his life story and to express their hopes for the choir.
John Bohl was a familiar name to the Flint classical and church music scene in his short 38 years. He began at Charity United Methodist Church directing the children’s choir along with his mother Dorie Barkey. He received his first piano when he was seven from some women in his church.
Barkey said he took to piano playing like a fish to water–he was a natural. He studied with several teachers, including Kathleen Jones and G. Donald Kaye at Flint Institute of Music. When he was tall enough that his legs could reach the pedals he began studying organ.
Bohl had an extensive music career, working most recently as associate organist at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany NY. Before that he served for ten years at St. Paul’s Parish, K Street in Washington DC, first as assistant director of music and then as interim director of music. From 2005-2007 he was assistant organist and choirmaster at Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore MD.
He studied music at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Among some of the music positions he held were the associate conductor of the Washington Chorus (2011-2013).
He made his Kennedy Center debut in a performance of “The Lark” by Leonard Bernstein with The Washington Chorus in November 2012. He performed regularly with the choirs of the Washington National Cathedral.
Kirkorian said “John really believed in making music accessible. He believed in taking music to people who would not normally have access to it, to enjoy it and learn from it, who wouldn’t otherwise have access to listen to masters works in and outside of church.”
“I think that’s where he got a lot of joy in the last several years of his life,” Kirkorian said, “Working with kids especially–exposing music to kids. So I’m hopeful that this choir can really make it their mission to do more outreach to people that can’t get out or maybe feel like some concerts are too expensive.”
Dorie Barkey and Kirkorian describe the John Bradford Bohl choir as an outreach community choir. Its goal, they said, is to take music to people where they are, to make it accessible for all to participate and enjoy the sounds and feelings that music brings.
Barkey said she knows John is looking down and smiling. “It would please him that this is an outreach choir,” she said.
The choir’s caroling was just that type of event – taking music to the people — and the choir plans to make caroling an annual event.
Kirkorian, new to the Flint area, said, “I had to wrap my head around the experience of singing in this neighborhood [Carriage Town] that I wasn’t familiar with. But really we brought joy even if it was just bringing joy to that one child, or the cat lady who chased her cat across the porch as she opened the door to greet the carolers…that’s one more person that hears you and the music.”
“You can lighten their day with the singing. I imagine that there are lots of people here in Flint who are struggling during the holidays,” Kirkorian said. Bemoaning how the holidays seem often to be about how much money you have, Dorie Barkey noted that during Christmas caroling no money is needed–just the desire to sing and share Christmas joy. She said some of the neighbors even sang along.
Ann Lerche, a local attorney who has sang with the choir since it began, also offered reflections following the caroling on what it means to be an ally of the LGBTQ community.
Lerche said, “John’s love and commitment to music deserves recognition and remembrance, which I hope the choir promotes. That is the reason I joined this specific choir, but I also support its message of inclusion and openness.”
“My hope is that others who are LGBTQ or who are supportive of the LGBTQ community will join and support the choir so that it will grow in number and in excellence and will help spread the word that, as my father once told me, people are just people, mostly trying to do good in the world and to live a good life, no matter who they love.”
Barkey said being an ally for the LGBTQ community is about being supportive and accepting, no matter who you are.
“We want the choir to be a non-judgemental place. We don’t want people to feel like others are looking over their shoulder at you and talking about you. There are no labels. I want the choir to be the way I would be with my own son,” she said.
Barkey and Lindsey said the choir is taking a break in January and will begin rehearsals again in February at 12:15 a.m. each Saturday in the choir room at FIM. All are welcome.
EVM Staff Writer Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.