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Barbara Wagner, founding director of Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus, dies at 80

Barbara Wagner, a passionate leading figure in Western New York choral music, died Feb. 17 at the Garden House Nursing Home in Getzville, after a long illness. She was 80.

Countless singers and musicians performed over the decades under Wagner's direction. She was in her 50th year directing the choir of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo by the time she retired in 2012 as the church's music director. Her late husband, the Rev. William G. Wagner, was a Unitarian Universalist minister.

She was the founding director of the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus, which she led for 10 years. For 25 years, she taught vocal music at Nichols School, and later taught at Buffalo Seminary. She served for 12 years as music director at Temple Beth Am, and for five years directed the Orchard Park Chorale.

Wagner was known for crossing boundaries and for taking music to heart. She asked that singers do likewise.

"I don't care if you're Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian or atheist," she once told the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus, as they were rehearsing a sacred work in Latin by Camille Saint-Saens. "I want you all to believe this when you sing it. You have to believe it, and you have to tell people."

During her tenure at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, the church became known for the high quality of its music. The church choir made two European tours, recorded for American Public Radio, and performed locally with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus, too, achieved prominence under her leadership.

The group got off to a dramatic start. Its first rehearsal had been scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001, which turned out to be the date of the World Trade Center attacks. The singers, though shaken, assembled anyway. A few months later, Wagner told The News what comfort they had found in music. Joining hands, they had sung, several times, a hymn from the church hymnbook.

"From you I receive, to you I give," the song went. "Together we share, and for this we live."

It could be said that Wagner lived for music.

Born Barbara McCarthy in Lockport, she graduated from Lockport Senior High School and the University of Buffalo. At UB, she studied with the eminent organist Squire Haskin and pursued graduate studies at Westminster Choir College. She went on to advanced organ studies in Germany's Munich Conservatory with Karl Richter. She was also an excellent pianist.

She was a member of the American Choral Directors Association, the Erie County Music Educators Association, the American Guild of Organists, and the Chromatic Club. She was a founder of the Unitarian Universalists Musicians Network. In 2002, she was awarded the Erie County Music Educator/BPO Award for Excellence in Choral Education.

"She really lived a life of an artist," said Cherie Messore, who was the publicist for the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus at the time of its founding and became good friends with Wagner. "She appreciated the beauty that music brought to all of our lives, and she wanted to celebrate that."

Messore also recalled Wagner's lively sense of humor.

"She would look at you with those beautiful blue eyes, and that sweet smile, and say the funniest things," she said. "That was part of her gift and her ministry. She could say funny things, and heartfelt and serious things. It was all with conviction. I consider her an exemplar of how to live a life of grace, passion, and conviction."

Garrett Martin, the chorus' current director, could tell Wagner's high standards from the group he inherited.

"What I've heard from all the guys is that she's so well balanced, heart with head," he said. "She brought out so much emotion of the music while not sacrificing excellent music in that process. When someone handed me a recording of the chorus under her direction. the first thing I thought was, this group has chops, this woman must have chops."

He noted that Wagner's vision showed in the choir's repertoire, which included many challenging classics.

"Gay choirs are often known for doing camp and schlock. She said, 'We're not going to be known for that,' " he said. "The choir is grounded in the rich tradition of men's choral singing. The gay element was second. The first thing was to be a good choral group."

In recent years, as Wagner's health declined, she was able to hold onto music. As long as she could, she played the piano for other care center residents. Friends stayed in touch, visiting her and singing for her.

As news of her death spread on Facebook, singers began honoring Wagner. Many from the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus quoted an old Baptist hymn they loved to sing together, "How Can I Keep From Singing?"

Wagner's husband died in 2003. She is survived by a sister, Jeanne Gunby; two daughters, Carrie Martin of Hamburg, and Molly Wagner of Sydney, Australia; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. March 5 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, 695 Elmwood Ave.

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