Some beautiful choral writing in an emotional tribute.
CRAIG HELLA JOHNSON: Considering Matthew Shepard – Conspirare – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807638.39, 105:26, two discs (9/09/16) [Dist. by HM/PIAS] ****:
By now, I am sure – or hope – that all readers have at least heard of the horrific 1998 murder of the then twenty-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard. The fact that he was a young gay man who was hardly what most would consider an “activist” and who essentially executed made his name and his case move to the forefront of the fairly recent gay rights movement.
This piece takes, as its emotional base, the relative simplicity of Matthew’s life and the seemingly idyllic setting of Laramie, Wyoming and creates a mood of simple reflection and a certain amount of celebration of Shepard’s existence. This is not a work that goes “over the line” with anger or sadness. The narration – necessarily tough to listen to – comes close but this is one of those stories that, similarly to other landmark human rights cases and crimes over the years, we need to be reminded a bit, actually happened.
Craig Hella Johnson is a renowned choral conductor, composer and arranger. Considering Matthew Shepard is a full work, written as an oratorio with a Prologue, Passion and Epilogue. The work was written for the present vocal ensemble, Conspirare – and they are stunning – and commissioned by Fran and Larry Coleman and assisted by several others close to the University of Wyoming community and the situation.
The texts, aside from the narration, comes from a variety of very disparate sources including poet Lesléa Newman, Wyoming poets Sue Wallis and John Nesbitt and also Rumi, Tagore and Dante – to mention a few. The music itself and, therefore, this work, is not perfect. It quotes and channels J.S. Bach at the beginning and several times throughout, as a recognizable and meaningful source of emotion but we also have a few sections that echo a Coplandesque ‘music of the plains’ and we get some ‘cowboy music’ and even some ‘bar blues’ (such as in “Keep It Away from Me”) Some of these sections come dangerously close to cliché and very nearly derail the effect of the work for a while.
Johnson’s writing is at its finest when he gives us straight, lush choral writing and allows the texture, to be more oratorio-like and carry the tone of the topic. A prime example is the breath-taking “We Are All Sons.” Almost all reviews I have seen on this piece focus, understandably, on the meaning of Shepard’s death and the horror that gave birth to a movement. There is simply no denying this.
As music, I think there are more interesting or more rewarding large works on decidedly serious topics to refer to but clearly this one deals with something that – for some – never even seemed possible; and a topic that still carries controversy. Considering Matthew Shepard wears its emotions on its sleeve and the pastiche that, musically, it consists of is reflective, I think, of the myriad of forces, opinions and reactions that existed at the time and place as well as those which followed.
It is hard, I admit, to look at the photos of Matthew in the booklet and not see a nice looking young man and allow ourselves to wonder what he would have grown up to become and to ask that key question, “Why did this happen?”
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