Power Of Music Transmutes Cruelty To Hope

Conspirare in a 2016 performance of “Considering Matthew Shepard.”

CRAIG HELLA JOHNSON: Considering Matthew Shepard. Conspirare and instrumentalists. Craig Hella Johnson, piano and conductor. harmonia mundi HMU 807638.39 (2 CDs). Total Time: 105:26.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – On Oct. 7, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked by two men and tied to a fence. Found and hospitalized, he died five days later. As word of this horrific event spread across the country, it was greeted by many with shock and outrage. Poems, plays, and films were created to honor his memory, and a foundation was established “to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

In Austin, Texas, Craig Hella Johnson, the conductor of the choral ensemble Conspirare, was moved to compose a major work dealing with the life and death of this young man.

At the time of his death, and for several years afterwards, the central fact about the murder of Matthew Shepard was that it was clearly a hate crime, a vicious attack on a gay man simply because he was gay. Then, after further investigation, a new narrative emerged. Instead of being a hate crime directed at a gay man, evidence suggested that the murder had more to do with drugs and a robbery gone bad. The murderers were caught and convicted, received life sentences, and remain in prison. As their stories were contradictory and inconsistent, it appears that we will never know all the facts about this event.

Lesléa Newman wrote October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, a series of poems about the murder and its aftermath, which became the basis of a libretto for Craig Hella Johnson’s choral work, Considering Matthew Shepard. In addition to some of Newman’s poems, Johnson’s libretto includes words by a wide variety of other writers. Johnson worked closely with Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne and also drew on the work of Wyoming poets Sue Wallis and John D. Nesbitt as well as Gabriela Mistral, William Blake, and Old Testament scribes.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation is, in the words of executive director Jason Marsden, devoted to replacing “hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance.” While that appears to have been the goal of composer Johnson in writing Considering Matthew Shepard, which mourns the death of a troubled young gay man in a vicious attack, its message is far more wide-ranging.

Johnson, a renowned choral conductor, has a special gift for imaginative, thoughtful, and eclectic programming, which is especially evident in his annual Christmas concerts. Less well known as a composer, he has infused Concerning Matthew Shepard with this same thoughtfulness and eclecticism, drawing texts from a wide variety of voices, adding music from genres and styles as varied as country, blues, gospel, baroque, medieval, and New Age, and tying all these elements together with a moving narrative of what happened on that fateful day, Oct. 7, 1998.

Craig Hella Johnson is artistic director of Conspirare.

The work opens with Johnson at the piano, playing the Prelude in C major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This is music based on simple arpeggios. It is elemental in its simplicity – universal, if you will – and a link to the composer who wrote the greatest of all musical “Passions” (i.e. the suffering of Christ and his death on the cross). Johnson’s work too is largely a “Passion” story, that of an innocent young man’s suffering and death at the hands of his enemies, and a roadmap to a way forward from hate and destruction toward “hope”, hope that the power of love will ultimately overcome the meanness that lurks in all of us.

Movement 16, for example, is a setting of a poem by Craig Hella Johnson, beginning with the lines “I am like you, Aaron and Russell.” These are the murderers, Aaron and Russell, and here the poet is attempting to walk in their shoes, trying to forgive them for what they did. Johnson sets these lines to music by an unaccompanied vocal quartet, singing softly in close harmony. There are no grand gestures here. There is no raging against evil. Instead, the music and words are oddly comforting: “I bet you once had hopes and dreams too. Some things we love get lost along the way.”

To be sure, there is passion and fury elsewhere in the work: the text in Movement 12 explores the fire that lies within us, that would destroy everything and everyone around us. Here, Johnson unleashes his percussion with elemental pounding rhythms.

Having begun with the first bars of a Bach prelude, Considering Matthew Shepard continues with a few bars of yodeling and poetry dealing with “Cattle, sky, and grass.” The words and music take us to the American West, the traditions and culture of which are part of the story. Towards the end of the work, all three elements are reprised: the Bach prelude, the yodeling, and the words about “Cattle, sky, and grass.” In between these elements, spoken narration and poetic reflections set to Johnson’s music give us the basic facts – as they are known – of Matthew Shepard’s story.

Amazingly, Johnson manages to create both unity and variety in this nearly two-hour opus, with the unity stemming from the narration and the repetition of the elements I have mentioned, and the variety from his resourceful use of the choir and the small instrumental ensemble of eight players, led by Johnson himself at the keyboard.

As we listen to this endlessly inventive piece, we are constantly reminded that Conspirare is not just a 29-voice professional choir; it is also a group of 29 gifted soloists. In fact, Johnson’s use of the choir as an ensemble is sparing. More often we hear solos, duets, trios, and quartets. Tenor Matt Alber, whose voice is most often used by the composer for the music with a country flavor, makes an outstanding contribution. He gives us the yodeling at the beginning and at the end of the piece, and even more memorably, the slow country ballad “The Innocence,” set to poetry by Browne.

The soloists in “Meet Me Here”, another country song featured in the work, are female; it is deeply moving music beautifully sung by Kathlene Ritch and Shari Alise Wilson. “All of Us” uses elements of gospel music and features a vocal trio. Later in the movement, Johnson introduces another Bachian element, with a moving chorale. The three soloists here – Sonja DuToit Tengblad, Mela Dailey, and Stefanie Moore – are superb.

The story of what happened to Matthew Shepard on Oct. 7, 1998, is almost unbearable to read. The hatred, cruelty, and suffering are beyond our understanding. We can weep, we can get angry, we can despair, but none of that will bring him back or prevent such things from happening again. Craig Hella Johnson has shown us a better way. He believes that we can do better, and we can do it through hope and love. Some of our best poets have tried to put into words what this tragedy has meant to them and suggest how we can rise above such behavior. Johnson has used the power of music to reinforce and exponentially multiply the power of those words. Considering Matthew Shepard is a masterpiece, the essence of which will continue to speak to us, especially at times of great loss and suffering, for years to come.

Earlier this month, Conspirare gave a performance of this opus, which was recorded live for television by PBS station KLRU in Austin. Elliott Forrest, director of this somewhat shortened version of Considering Matthew Shepard, added some visual elements to make the performance more appealing to a television audience. This 90-minute broadcast will be distributed nationally to PBS stations around the country in 2018 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death.

When broadcast, “the film will be accompanied by outreach programs providing opportunities for communities to participate in a national conversation about acceptance, compassion, and bullying,” according to KLRU spokesperson Maury Sullivan.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.