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Conspirare Celebrates and Mourns Matthew Shepard

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Considering Matthew Shepard pays homage to gay rights icon Matthew Shepard following the 20th anniversary of his murder.

By Brianna Caleri, Photo courtesy of Conspirare

Matthew Shepard loved being onstage. 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, and thanks to Craig Hella Johnson, founding artistic director of the award-winning Conspirare choral ensemble and composer of the oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard, Shepard is onstage once again.

One October night in 1998, while planning for LGBT Awareness Week at a bar with campus friends, Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student, was abducted, beaten and left in a field to die, crucified on a lonely fence. Shepard’s death and the following trials led to a public reckoning on hate crimes. In 2009, legislation named in part for him provided more resources for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. It also broadened the definition of a hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Conspirare piece marks the 25th anniversary of the company and weaves in unexpected styles and instrumentation, from the blues to holy minimalism. It is a testament to the longevity and versatility of the ensemble and to the human diversity that gives the story such a poignant edge.

“It’s almost like [Johnson] has taken what we’ve been able to perform over the course of 25 years and then put it into a single 105-minute work,” says Ann McNair, Conspirare’s managing director.

Johnson remembers Shepard’s death in 1998 and was drawn to the story as a musical subject 20 years later because of its small-town relatability.

“He happened to be a regular young, gay kid, and of course I identify with that as a gay man,” Johnson says, “but also just so many things about him that were sort of wonderfully ordinary.”

The anchor of the piece is Bach’s “Prelude in C,” a universal symbol of order in Western concert music. The familiar melody introduces the piano as a safe, stoic base to the story, not unlike the fence that held Shepard’s injured body through the night. Even more importantly, Bach’s most egalitarian work sets the stage for a collection of perspectives, both objective and ethereally emotional, from the victim and the perpetrators to the community and nature itself. In the airy opening movement, the prelude is juxtaposed with the sunny yodel of a lonely cowboy, lending him a timeless emotional authority out in the open prairie. The prelude’s second and longer cameo develops into its more harmonically turbulent section, and as it modulates, the lyrics plunge into heavier societal burdens.

The triumph of Considering Matthew Shepard is its emotional clarity, despite the naturally muddied reactions the story elicits. It carefully balances the heaviest subjects with stylistic sympathy. “I Am Like You/We Are All Sons (part 2)” gently and austerely explores the perspective of the kidnappers, leaving room for plenty of cognitive dissonance. A bluesy movement featuring electric guitar, “Keep It Away From Me (The Wound of Love)” is the first to directly address grief by name, and the grief of generations is highlighted by the African-American musical identity. “Meet Me Here,” the first movement of the epilogue, provides a much-needed emotional climax and de-escalation in the reassuring form of a folk ballad. Amid the classical seriousness, lyrics in the vernacular keep the narration from feeling too much like a legend.

McNair says the performance has changed her perspective of how we connect with people who feel different from us.

“How have I made people ‘other?’ ” she asks.

Conspirare recently took the oratorio on tour, including a stop in Laramie, Wyo., where Shepard was murdered, and one at the Washington National Cathedral attended by Shepard’s parents. At the latter event, McNair was brought to tears.

“We need to cry together,” she says. “And we need to cry together in public.”

Drawing inspiration from the Wyoming setting and its cowboy lore, Johnson also sees the piece as an opportunity to discuss the societal implications of being a man, and especially being men together. In the sentimental movement titled “Stray Birds,” Johnson always feels moved to see the all-male tenors and basses standing in a line, coming together in “a vulnerable moment.”

“It’s disturbing to some and I appreciate that,” Johnson acknowledges. “That’s sort of intentional, that it stirs us.”

But he doesn’t want to smother audiences with grief. There are moments, especially those that bookend Considering Matthew Shepard, that are optimistic and even joyful. The penultimate movement, titled “All of Us,” was carefully constructed to provoke listeners to re-examine their own identity.

“I also very much wanted it to be something that could be available and accessible to people of a broad spectrum of experience with music,” Johnson says. “I was trying to create the feeling of a big tent where all are welcome.”

The final two performances will be April 13 in Stanford, Calif., and April 16 in Tucson, Ariz. April 26, Conspirare will host its yearly Hidden Music event at Hotel Van Zandt in Austin, which promises to be an exciting 25th anniversary celebration.

“As a conductor,” Johnson explains, “so often, audiences are seeing my backside, so this is kind of a way for me to turn around and be in musical conversation.”

In February, Johnson accepted a Texas Medal of Arts award on behalf of Conspirare. The group was one of 11 to be honored for a significant contribution to the arts, alongside Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Holliday and Boz Scaggs.

“We’re not here just to create historical documents, or our performances aren’t vanity projects,” Johnson says. “They’re here to be living, breathing, vibrant performances that can be expressions of great art and can also be vehicles for the expression of life around us.”

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