By Ray Cooklis
Nearly 20 years ago, a crime shocked the conscience of a nation already jaded by violence: A gay college student in Wyoming was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead.
The death of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 led to much soul-searching about hatred and violence in our society. It also planted a seed in the mind of choral conductor and composer Craig Hella Johnson, now music director of Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble – a seed that took nearly two decades to flourish.
The result is a stylistically diverse and emotionally stirring oratorio, “Considering Matthew Shepard,” that has received a warm audience reception during the past year and has had a Grammy-nominated recording. VAE will perform the work under Johnson’s direction March 4-5 at Xavier University’s Gallagher Theater.
“The idea of this is what lived with me for many years,” said Johnson, also founder and director of Conspirare, an Austin, Texas-based choral group that has performed the work during the past year. But not until 2012 did Johnson begin putting the idea into music.
“For all those years I felt like I had a visitation, a calling to respond in a musical way,” Johnson said. “It affected me very deeply. It was very compelling and never let me go.”
Once he started composing, he began thinking of the work as a “passion” – the term usually reserved for a musical narrative on the suffering and death of Christ.
He composed it in that manner – a sequence of arias and recitations telling the story of the young Shepard, using poetry from a range of sources, notably Lesléa Newman’s “October Mourning,” itself inspired by Shepard’s death.
In 2014, Johnson tried out the work in a workshop performance, which he found to be “a profound experience for me and the performers.” But something, he knew, was missing.
“I felt I needed to move into a larger sphere with my piece,” he said. “I didn’t want it to just be a story of Matt’s suffering, but make it a contemplation on what it means.”
Brutal acts happen all the time, around the world, he said. We live with them in the news almost daily.
“They have almost become normalized. We become almost numb to it,” Johnson said. “So what do we do at the heart level with these confounding tragedies? Is there a way we can connect that and bring healing?”
That led Johnson to add a substantial Prologue and an Epilogue to the work that softens the raw emotions, fills out a portrait of young Matthew, and leads the listener in meditations on our common humanity. But it doesn’t hit them over the head with a foregone conclusion. “It couldn’t have a false hope or a false resolution,” Johnson said. “We have to meet it on our own terms.
“I think of this piece as a ‘singing meditation.’ ”
That impulse also led to the work’s title. “I didn’t want to call it ‘The Passion of Matthew Shepard’ or anything like that. I want the audience to be in a place of ‘consideration.’ ”
Pulling modern audiences, most not accustomed to the sound-world of an extended oratorio, along a nearly two-hour musical narrative was a tricky challenge. Johnson’s impulse was to include various musical styles – even country-western, a nod to the story’s American West setting, plus Broadway, pop and classical, among others.
“I wasn’t really looking to do a big crossover thing,” Johnson said. “But it was an attempt to represent the breadth of the human community, the largest tent possible … for us to really heal and transform we need to do this together as a ‘we.’ ”
Much of the work has a sweetness that seems a way to convey young Matthew’s innocence, an “Ordinary Boy,” as a piece with lyrics taken from his notebooks brings across.
Johnson has noted a wide range of reactions to the work, but “overwhelmingly, there’s been a huge positive reaction,” he said. “People have embraced this piece to such a great degree. It is a transformative piece for many of them.”
He said the story’s staying power intrigues him. “It has been nearly 20 years. But there is something about the Matthew Shepard story and what happened to him that is still significant. None of that significance has faded for most people.
“It’s more than the event itself. It has taken on a larger meaning. You could say there are similarities to the Christ story. He was tied to a fence. His wrists were tied. From an iconic perspective, there’s a power there. And Matthew’s life and death are being used to bring light and change into the world.”
One criticism has surprised him: that “Considering Matthew Shepard” doesn’t seem “angry” enough, reflecting outrage over violence.
“My response has been, first of all, I am incredibly angry about this,” Johnson said. Portions of the work serve as a “primal scream” to send the message that “this should not happen to any human being,” he noted.
“Then I thought, if we are left with nothing but anger, is there any possibility for transformation and hope?”
He also recognizes that the work, despite its length and serious subject, may not satisfy those expecting a traditional oratorio experience.
“I am passionate about the oratorio. I love these larger forms. But any time we are doing genre-breaking things in classical music, there’s some restlessness from purists. I understand that. But that’s very much to the point that we need to sit down together, with all kinds of music, and heal together.”
For the VAE performance, Johnson will conduct from the piano with seven instrumentalists and soloists drawn from the chorus. The Cincinnati Opera will collaborate with some light staging, lighting and direction. Opera Artistic Director Evans Mirageas “has been very supportive to me in the creation of this piece,” Johnson said. “He’s been close to this.”
A PBS concert film version is in the works. More on this at: klru.org/blog/tag/considering-matthew-shepard
If you go:
Vocal Arts Ensemble
Craig Hella Johnson,
conductor and composer
“Considering Matthew Shepard”
March 4, 8 p.m., March 5, 5 p.m.
Gallagher Theater, Xavier University
381-3300 or vaecinci.org