(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance art critic Luke Quinton.)
How we memorialize is just as important as what we memorialize. In a concert that deals with a murder, there’s an expectation you’ll be challenged — that an artistic gesture will move a hate crime suddenly on your emotional radar. It could be unsettling. And “Considering Matthew Shepard” definitely unsettles, but this is a wildly diverse piece that does a lot more. It lifts you up, throws you into the scene of the crime and messy aftermath, sends you into a researcher’s sketch biography of Matthew’s life and finally steps back to protest the injustice of the act but also to ask something more from the society that allowed it to happen.
To Conspirare devotees, it seemed obvious that “Considering Matthew Shepard,” Craig Hella Johnson’s first major work as a composer, was a culmination of influences from works the choral ensemble had sung over the past several years.
There’s an ostensibly audacious blend of gospel, country and western, and formal sacred music. Conspirare fans could chart these influences, and from Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” to the choir’s stylish Christmas pastiche, they’re here — improbably, intelligently fitting together.
The papier-mâché of styles has a direction, and it’s a vital one — a full-scale exploration of the 1998 killing of this young, gay Wyoming man, and the aftermath of his death.
The choir emerged into the AISD Performing Arts Center stage last weekend slowly, without drama, as if they were there for rehearsal. Their faces were not just grim with respect, but looked emotionally drained even before the first note.
Then, after the a gentle touch of Bach, played by Johnson (who also conducted from the piano), the piece began — with a yodel.
The Western elements like this connect the spirit of Matthew Shepard to the land of Wyoming — with a claim to “cattle, horses, sky and grass,” armor against those who’d like to treat him as an outsider.
Then the choir comes alive as we enter musical theater territory for “Ordinary Boy,”: “He went camping, he went fishing, even hunting for a moose.”
A singer dons a blue plaid shirt, in a physical manifestation of Shepard on stage. This is an easing-in period. It eulogizes Matthew as “Matt,” the name we learn he was called by friends and family.
Next comes the fence. This is the Passion section, a mix of music and recitations that tell the events as they unfolded. Shepard’s body was left for dead, on a fence, by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. In Johnson’s piece, there is a physical fence as stage prop. The plaid shirt rests there, and when soloists sing the personified fence post’s words, they stand near it.
“He was dead weight yet he kept breathing …/ Their truck was the last thing he saw / I cradled him just like a mother.”
Quickly we’re in darker territory, and soon a detail of the real life story emerges that I’d forgotten: The picketing of Shepard’s funeral by the Westboro Baptist Church. The metaphorical Westboro crowd belt out from the choir, “Kreuzige, kreuzige!” (Crucify, crucify!) You feel a jolt of surprise here as chills trace down your spine. Then the protesters elaborate their position: “A boy who takes a boy to bed / Where I came from, that’s not polite / He asked for it, you got that right / The fires of Hell burn hot and red…”
This is the most poignant moment of the work. The shock we get from moving from “Ordinary Boy” to “Crucify” is physically stunning, not in the least because it instantly locks Shepard’s death in step with the Passions of composers like Bach — which means it draws a throughline from the murder of an innocent Jesus of Nazareth to an innocent gay man in Wyoming.
In the post-show talkback, someone in the crowd remarked that the original workshop version of the piece (2014) was a potent but draining exercise — leaving the listeners on that fence. The completed 90 minute version is more complex, with multiple shifts in tone. After the protest, the mood changes yet again. At every turn it seems Johnson’s Passion builds new hinges and opens new doors, creating an entirely new thing. After the Passion section, we’re placed in another galaxy, with a jazz rhythm on bass and a rock and roll guitar. Another section recalls “West Side Story.”
The libretto was written by Johnson with help from librettist Michael Dennis Browne and uses the poetry of Lesléa Newman, Blake and Rumi, among others.
Perhaps the most surprising influence here is a country music ballad. “The Innocent” asks honest questions, and if ever there was an occasion to justify a corny ballad, we have it. But the too-simple melody and refrain (“Where, O where, is the innocence gone?”) doesn’t live up to the complexities of the rest of the work or, indeed, some country lyrics.
The spiritual and gospel elements here have much more to offer. A heartbreaking story about a deer that seemed to keep Shepard company is given a moving tune. “Pilgrimage” was a more formal, modern composition, with a chilling melody and deadly effective harmonies. The bursts of gospel set us to Sunday morning in the pews.
“Considering Matthew Shepard” is a stunning work, largely because it succeeds at being so audacious. It treats a deadly serious topic with surprising levity, and at the same time makes a shrewd connection to the heart of this darkness. Johnson’s colleague, the composer Robert Kyr, in attendance, called the new work “an American classic.”
It’s too early to tell, but this work certainly meant something to those in the hall, notably, members of Austin’s LGBT community in attendance. It’s worth considering the finale, the gospel-inspired “All of Us.” It was later described by Johnson as “a big bonfire,” into which the choir could throw its anger and grief. It worked like that for the audience, too.