in: Reviews

April 4, 2016

Matthew Shepard’s Lesson to All

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shepard-fencePart oratorio, part message, part celebration, part tribute, part ritual, Considering Matthew Shepard stands above all as a musical consideration of freedom of the soul. In about 100 continuous minutes of chorus, vocal soli, spoken text, and small instrumental ensemble, it tells us how the senseless torture-murder of a 21-year-old gay man in Wyoming echoes and re-echoes in a world that must confront and overcome hatred and prejudice if the human species is to have any hope of surviving.

Craig Hella Johnson, composer and choral conductor from Texas who has been heralded as the Robert Shaw of our time, assembled a surprisingly coherent panoply of musical sources and styles. Johnson led three first performances this February in Texas (Austin) and California (Pasadena and Los Angeles) with his own group, Conspirare, which mustered 29 professional singers at the premiere; Saturday’s performance in Sanders Theater brought together the Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society and Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum (Andrew Clark, director). The forces numbering 150 singers, soli and choral, gratified the composer. There are no fewer than 19 student soloists in short narrative roles, including in trios and quartets; and only one imported professional, Dashon Burton, bass-baritone, who was sometimes an Evangelist and sometimes the angry voice of God. Johnson conducted and accompanied throughout at the piano, which he played sometimes as continuo, sometimes as blues soloist, sometimes as chamber musician. The small supporting instrumental ensemble numbered electric guitar and acoustic guitar, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, contrabass, and one percussionist including mallets and drums; a separate drumming group, played by choral singers, came on stage briefly at the midpoint.

The three sections, Prologue, Passion, and Epilogue, coordinate an impressive variety of textual sources: modern poets (Lesléa Newman, Sue Wallis, Michael Dennis Browne, Gabriela Mistral, Rabindranath Tagore, W.S.Merwin), old poets (Bible, folksong, Rumi, Hafiz, Hildegarde von Bingen, Blake), Matthew Shepard’s own journal, writings from his parents, and newspaper sources, with additional text by Craig Hella Johnson. After the Prologue, describing Matthew Shepard’s ordinary adolescence, the Passion displays the first visible prop, three fenceposts bolted together. Like the wooden cross of Jesus’ crucifixion, the fence remains a mute witness all the way through Matthew Shepard’s Passion. “Around midnight, they drove him to a remote area, tied him to a split-rail fence, beat him horribly, and left him to die in the cold of the night.” There are 15 songs in the Passion, interspersed by ten recitations; for the Epilogue, the fence is disassembled and removed from the stage.

The music begins with the Prelude No. 1 in C Major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, accompanying a yodeling cowboy and chorus. These emblems, which sound nothing like Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” return at the very end of the work to sustain the overall arch form. The songs range from unison chorus to four-part homophonic; they come in folksong style, cowboy songs such as Copland would have respected, plain country-and-western, gospel hymns, and sometimes a flavor of the so-called “familiar style” of Robert Lowry and Ira Sankey.  Much of the text is set in a freer choral style, with homophonic harmony that is diatonic-dissonant but well grounded in root-position triads; choral composers today recognize how this kind of harmony can be sung with great clarity of sound without any chromatic danger, and the score almost never shows an accidental sign.  One poignant episode, “I Am Like You,” as though recapturing the disarticulated thoughts of the murderers in four solo voices, cycled and recycled a small diatonic set of pitches in what the composer hinted was an “Arvo Pärt style”. Only in the penultimate chorus did a good deal of contrapuntal motion, in the manner of a Handelian triumphal finale — again very diatonic—emerge. And the text could be heard clearly at every moment.

Though this description sounds like pastiche, the seemingly discordant idioms of this large work combined with a surprisingly inevitability. Appalachian Spring and Lincoln Portrait succeed in the same way. Before hearing it, I had worried that with such a provocative dramatic basis, this new work might skirt too close to such phony emotionality as Jesus Christ Superstar. It doesn’t, emphatically. JCS is a stuffed owl, while Considering Matthew Shepard feels entirely authentic both as music, and as a message of hope that demands commitment and strength as well as love.

The performance was excellent throughout, with pellucid choral sound, and fine clarity of voice from all of the soloists; Craig Hella Johnson, fully the master of his own music, conducted with complete confidence. Andrew Clark had prepared his groups with exemplary thoroughness, and I didn’t hear even a flicker of hesitation all evening. The audience showed its appreciation by leaping to its feet and remaining thus for more than five minutes.

At a discussion group in Sanders following the performance I learned some things about the composition of the work that I hadn’t known before, but what emerged most forcefully in the conversation was the ongoing need for the artistic message of Considering Matthew Shepard in the politically charged environment of America today, when gay-bashing is rampant and increasing in our legislatures and among our national political leaders. Considering Matthew Shepard isn’t likely to become a political football because of its music. But the audience knew it as a tribute to a young gay man who didn’t deserve to die; and it is a mirroring look at ourselves as well, when we know that our own society cannot be free if we refuse to accept our differences.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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