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How ‘Matthew Shepard’ oratorio became a transcendent ‘Passion’ to fallen student

The Conspirare Choir performs in "Considering Matthew Shepard" in February 2018. | Marlee Crawford/Ole Miss Communications

The Conspirare Choir performs in "Considering Matthew Shepard" in February 2018. | Marlee Crawford/University of Mississippi Communications

When 21-year-old Matthew Shepard died in 1998 after being beaten and tied to a fence along a road outside Laramie, Wyo., he became an enduring symbol of the discrimination and violence that homosexuals have long suffered in this country.

‘Considering Matthew Shepard’
Conspirare and Windy City Performing Arts, Craig Hella Johnson, conductor
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12
Where: Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park
Tickets: $40-$60; $10 lawn seating
Info: ravinia.org

Craig Hella Johnson, who was artistic director of the male chorus, Chanticleer, at the time, was hit hard by the news. “It was just like a piercing,” he said. “I lived with that as a citizen, as a human being and as a gay man, and the more it dwelled in me I felt like I wanted to respond in some way.”

That response manifested itself with Johnson composing the “Considering Matthew Shepard” oratorio, which debuted in 2016 and will receive its local premiere Sept. 12 in the Martin Theatre as part of the Ravinia Festival.

The concert, marking the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, will feature Conspirare, a 30-voice choir from Austin, Texas, which Johnson founded in 1991, as well as seven instrumentalists and a brief appearance by Windy City Performing Arts. The composer will conduct from the piano.

University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard is shown in this undated file photo. Shepard, a gay college freshman, was beaten and left to die outside of Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. | AP Photo/File

University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard is shown in this undated file photo. Shepard, a gay college freshman, was beaten and left to die outside of Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. | AP Photo/File

At first, Johnson thought he might just write a song in tribute Shepard but eventually realized that he wanted to do something more ambitious. “I think the feelings were a lot deeper than I realized,” he said. “It just sort of lingered with me for a long, long time.”

Finally around 2012, he set out to write a passion in honor of the murdered student. The most famous such works are Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew Passion” —18th-century sacred oratorios that the composer had conducted and knew well.

Johnson, who received Chorus America’s lifetime achievement award in 2015, wanted to create a work that was broadly accessible but also drew on those classical roots. He fell in love with oratorios — extended musical settings of usually sacred texts — as a student.

“I’ve seen their presence in the concert hall kind of diminishing — these big productions, these big story-telling devices,” he said. “So, just from a choral perspective, I was very much interested in advocating for these oratorios that I knew and loved and I wanted to see more of them.”

Craig Hella Johnson, the artistic director and conductor of the oratorio, "Considering Matthew Shepard." | James Goulden Photo

Craig Hella Johnson composed and conducts the oratorio, “Considering Matthew Shepard.” | James Goulden Photo

“Considering Matthew Shepard” was first heard in rough form during a workshop performance in 2014, and the completed work debuted in Austin two years later and experienced almost immediate success. The respected label, Harmonia Mundi, recorded the oratorio and the resulting release in September 2016 debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s traditional classical chart.

“Johnson’s ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ demonstrates music’s capacity to encompass, transform and transcend tragedy,” wrote music critic Patrick Rucker in the Washington Post in a review of the recording. “Powerfully cathartic, it leads us from horror and grief to a higher understanding of the human condition, enabling us to endure.”

The oratorio, which runs about 100 minutes, is the largest work that Johnson has composed to date. Previously, he had created only small pieces that served, for example, as bridges between other selections on his choral programs.

“I never had put the hat on as: ‘I am a composer,’” he said. “So, this is a huge thing for me to dive into this pool and attempt to do it.”

Akin to Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which Ravinia presented July 28, the choral work contains a diversity of styles, including choral polyphony, chorales, chant, folk-country songs and even an indie-pop tune.

The text is equally multifaceted, drawing on everyone from Dante to modern poets like Lesléa Newman and Michael Dennis Browne, as well as passages from Shepard’s journal, interviews and writings from his parents and newspaper articles.

As noted already, Johnson considers the oratorio to be a passion — what he called a “suffering story” — and the second of the work’s three sections is titled “Passion.” He did not try to directly relate Shepard’s death to that of Christ, but the composer notes that there are similarities between the two, including the former being tied to a fence.

At the same time, Johnson thinks of the work as a “singing meditation,” hence its title. At first, he used “Considering Matthew Shepard” as a kind of place-keeper until he could think of something else. But the more he lived with the appellation, he decided to it was appropriate and kept it.

“I want to invite the listener to consider this story,” he said, “to consider this aspect of human nature and to consider how I as a listener or you as a listener would encounter this story and how one might relate to that.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.