University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

University of Hartford

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Johnson: Considering Matthew Shepard

10/13/2019 1:00 pm
10/13/2019 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

On October 12,1998 twenty-one year old college student Matthew Shepard died of grievous wounds sustained a week before in a savage homophobic attack. Matt was openly gay, and his death received national media attention. He became overnight the poster boy for the cause of LGBT civil rights. He could even be regarded as a martyr for the cause; his bones now reside in the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, DC. Matthew Shepard's victimization inspired a major work of dramatic art, Moyses Kaufman's The Laramie Project (2008), as well as various works of musical art-songs like Melissa Etheridge's "Scarecrow,” but also an entire oratorio, Considering Matthew Shepard (2016) by choral director Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1962).

This was Johnson's first composition on such a large scale. The Matthew Shepard Foundation endorsed and praised his work as "a priceless tribute to Matt." For the world premiere recording of Considering Matthew Shepard, Johnson conducts his own Conspirare vocal ensemble, joined by an ensemble of eight instrumentalists. Considering Matthew Shepard was released on two compact discs through Harmonia Mundi USA. Following the premiere of the oratorio in concert performance by Conspirare in 2016, Considering Matthew Shepard was taken up by other prestigious choral groups. Connecticut's own CONCORA performed it in November of 2018 in Hartford's "music church," Asylum Hill Congregational.

I have previously broadcast tracks from the HM-USA world premiere release of the Conspirare studio recording on the other radio program I do on WWUH, "Gay Spirit," our local LGBTQ newsprogram. This Sunday afternoon, however, I'm proud to present the entire oratorio. In auditioning the recording I found it quite interesting to assess the musical influences Craig Hella Johnson has absorbed in his very eclectic composition. There are Bach chorales and Black American a cappella stylings like those of Sweet Honey in the Rock, also Eastern Orthodox choir music as translated into Western terms à la John Tavener. There are even cowboy songs reminding us of Matt's native state of Wyoming. A spoken word narrator guides the listener through the tragic story.