[This story appears in the January|February 2017 issue of Boston Spirit magazine. Subscribe for free today.]
Musician and conductor Craig Hella Johnson, like many LGBTs, was profoundly shaken by the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.
On Oct. 7, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Shepard was lured from a gay bar in Laramie by two men, who drove him to a remote field where they savagely beat Shepard and left him tied to a fence. Discovered 18 hours later by a passing biker, Shepard died of his injuries after five days, never regaining consciousness. In response to calls for action, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
Eighteen years after Shepard’s brutal murder, Johnson, a Minnesota native who lives in Austin, realized his dream to honor Shepard’s memory and to craft an artistic response through music, the sole means with enough emotional power to do so. Johnson composed “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a three-part fusion oratorio that weaves various musical styles such as folk songs to spirituals with spoken word into a seamless tapestry, all sung by Conspirare, the acclaimed, 30-member Austin-based vocal ensemble that Johnson founded.
Conspirare, with Johnson on piano and conducting, will perform “Considering Matthew Shepard” on Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. at Boston’s Symphony Hall as part of a series produced by Berklee College of Music. Tickets are available at www.bso.org.
Conspirare won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance for its album “The Sacred Spirit of Russia.” The choral group’s singers hail from all over the country and include soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad of Boston as well as a chamber group of eight instrumentalists.
With Johnson on piano and conducting, the vocal ensemble will perform “Considering Matthew Shepard” on Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. at Boston’s Symphony Hall as part of a series produced by Berklee College of Music. For tickets, visit the BSO’s performance webpage.
Johnson, a graduate of Yale University, had written short compositions but never anything on a scale of “Considering Matthew Shepard.” It was while working as artistic director for the renowned male classical vocal ensemble Chanticleer that news broke about Shepard’s murder. Johnson recalled that one of Chanticleer’s singers, whose name happened to be Matt, approached Johnson and, through tears, could only utter the words, “His name was Matt.”
“It pierced our hearts. I felt from then that I wanted to respond,” Johnson says.
He finally found the right musical expression when Johnson hit upon the idea of a passion, inspired by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion oratorios. Johnson first workshopped the piece in Austin in 2014. “It was a rich experience,” he says, but he knew it wasn’t finished.
“Matt was missing for me,” Johnson says. The “musical mediation around his legacy” that he envisioned came together when Johnson met Michele Josue, director of the powerful, award-winning documentary “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.” Josue introduced Johnson to Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, who oversee the Matthew Shepard Foundation. They gave Johnson permission to include passages from Matt’s journals in the libretto. Johnson wove Shepard’s own words with newspaper reports, poetic texts from historic figures such as Hildegard von Bingen and Rumi, and selections by contemporary writers Michael Dennis Browne and popular local writer Leslea Newman, author of the 2012 book “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.”
“Considering Matthew Shepard” had its world premiere performances in 2016 in Austin and Los Angeles. In September 2016, Conspiare released a two-CD recording of “Considering Matthew Shepard” on the Harmonia Mundi label. It debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart. The Washington Post’s praised the work in a review of the CD that read, “Like Bach’s large-scale choral works, this spellbinding piece draws on many styles masterfully juxtaposed…resulting in an impact that is “immediate, profound and, at times, overwhelming.”
But there’s nothing like hearing the large-scale work performed live, says its composer. The Symphony Hall concert evolved after Johnson previewed his composition at Harvard last April, capping off his week-long residency with the Harvard University Holden Choruses with a Considering Matthew Shepard performance in Sanders Theatre.
With the success of the live performances and the CD, Johnson says that a national tour is now in the planning stages for the 2017–’18 season, which marks the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s murder. Although many LGBT people still recall how the event moved them and galvanized them to action, there is a new generation now without a clear memory of it. So that Shepard and his legacy are never forgotten, Johnson hopes that, following the Conspirare national tour, “Considering Matthew Shepard” will be performed by choirs, in schools, and at LGBT and performing arts centers.
Composing and releasing “Considering Matthew Shepard” into the world, says Johnson, “felt like another coming out. So Matt was an inspiration in that sense. To be in a room for 107 minutes with these singers and this music [offers] implications for our own personal journeys. I invite people to come in.
“The way Matt’s life ended is the story of what happens when we allow our culture to develop in this hateful rhetoric,” he says. “Matt paid the largest price but what matters is that his story is still bringing light into dark places.”