'Considering Matthew Shepard' an Ode to Inclusivity and Compassion

Monday, August 29, 2016

'Considering Matthew Shepard' 'Considering Matthew Shepard' (Harmonia Mundi)

Since his death in 1998, Matthew Shepard has been an enduring symbol of the L.G.B.T. rights movement and inspired numerous artistic tributes. The latest of these is Considering Matthew Shepard, a heartfelt oratorio by choral conductor and composer Craig Hella Johnson. The work appears on a new release by Conspirare, the elite vocal ensemble of which Johnson is founding artistic director.

Conceived as a three-part passion, Considering Matthew Shepard sets a mosaic of texts, drawn most heavily from poet Lesléa Newman’s October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and incorporating fragments of Rumi, Dante, Blake and others. Its framework owes to Bach, whose influence is acknowledged by an opening quotation of the C-major prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The 15-movement passion at the work’s center tells the story of Shepard’s death and its aftermath through a series of spoken recitations, interspersed with poetic settings that offer a medium for personal reflection. Echoing the alternating recitatives and arias in Bach’s Passions, the design here serves to chart the listener’s emotional journey through a heartrending narrative.

But while it professes to be a passion, Considering Matthew Shepard’s Technicolor Dreamcoat–theatricality more strongly evokes Broadway. “Ordinary Boy,” setting words from Shepard’s high school journal (“I love theatre / I love good friends / I love succeeding / I love pasta”), has the buoyant soul of a show tune. The subsequent arias constitute a pastiche of styles ranging from Lutheran hymnody to American blues, gospel and country music. The most affecting of these are “The Fence (that night),” a bass aria introduced by a Hildegard chant; and “I Am Like You,” a haunting vocal quartet on Johnson’s own searching text, addressed to Shepard’s killers.

Considering Matthew Shepard’s stylistic diversity provides an apt metaphor for the spirit of inclusivity fueled by Shepard’s legacy nearly two decades hence. The work begins and ends on the single word, “All.” The sentiment is clear: the passion of Matthew Shepard is for, and about, us all. In its kaleidoscope of styles, Johnson’s unabashedly sentimental tribute is equally a testament to the oneness of humankind and to the compassion that oneness demands.

Considering Matthew Shepard (Craig Hella Johnson, Conspirare)
Harmonia Mundi | Available September 9

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Comments [1]

KatyD from Arizona

Just finished listening...sitting here in tears. A very powerful and moving work. I'm a choral singer myself, and this piece is definitely going on my Bucket List of works that I hope to have the privilege of performing someday. Bravo, Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare. Bravo!

Aug. 31 2016 02:45 PM

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