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The Winston-Salem Symphony Chorus, accompanied by members of the Winston-Salem Symphony, presented the powerful oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard (2016) by Craig Hella Johnson (U.S., b. 1962) on Sunday afternoon in Brendle Recital Hall on the Wake Forest University campus. Considering Matthew Shepard is a sweeping composition that describes the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. It deals with Shepard's kidnapping, beating, and subsequent death in 1998 as well as providing an inward look at who Shepard was. It is ultimately an affirmation of life and the interconnectivity of humanity and nature.
Scored for chorus, solo voices, and eight instrumentalists (all from the W-S Symphony): Fabrice Dharamraj (violin), Jessica Ronnevik (viola), Gayle Masarie (cello), Mara Barker (double bass), Eileen Young (clarinet), Amy Xin Yin (percussion), Joe Pecoraro (guitar), and Nancy Johnston (piano). The work is in three parts: a Prologue and an Epilogue, which surround the main portion, the Passion (historically, the musical setting of the suffering and death of Christ).
"By weaving together a wide range of poetic and soulful text by poets including Hildegard of Bingen, Lesléa Newman, Michael Dennis Browne, and Rumi, Johnson created a work. . . part elegy, part Passion play, part drama, that at times gently, and at times forcefully, fashions a memorial that keeps the flame of Matthew Shepard's life and death alive." (Program Note by David B. Levy)
I first became aware of this piece when I attended a dress rehearsal of the Bloomington Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. Gerald Sousa two years ago in Indiana. I was moved by the music and was delighted to be able to hear this concert performance.
To say the music is eclectic in style would be an understatement. Wide ranging varieties and genres make up a kaleidoscope of music influences: from Baroque chorale singing, to African drumming, from electric slide guitar to medieval counterpoint, from unaccompanied choir to fully employed instrumentalists, solos, and choral forces. The music is comprehensible, tonal, and effective throughout. Throughout this review, lyrics are in parentheses while the name of songs are italicized.
The Prologue begins with the piano gently playing Bach's Prelude in C Major, which stops unexpectedly in the middle of a phrase. Humanity's place in the world is made apparent in the opening Cattle, Horse, Sky, and Grass, which focuses on the natural world before any mention of people (except for the opening yodel from a cowboy, which helps set the locale).
Matthew Shepard is then introduced using lyrics by Johnson as well as from Matthew's own writings and his mother's. The Prologue concludes with We Tell Each Other Stories, in which the murder of this single individual ("could be any boy") is about all of us ("In the story of us all . . . Open, listen. All.")
The Passion presents the details of the crime, evoking the tragic place of Shepard's death with The Fence and the opposing feelings surrounding the trial (A Protestor, and Keep It Away from Me (The Wound of Love) as well as broader concepts of humanity (I am Like You/We Are All Sons, and nature (Stars and Deer Song).
The Epilogue, like the Prologue, is made up of three pieces including another tip-of-the-hat to Bach with a chorale. Here the specific individual becomes the universal ("Ordinary boy, Only All of us" and "Only in the Love, Love that lifts us up. All Of Us All.") The hour and forty-minute piece ends with the return of Cattle, Horses, Sky, and Grass and the yodeling cowboy.
The drama of the text is brought alive by Johnson's skillful use of the 70+ choir. Sometimes men's and women's voices are juxtaposed against each other, or the entire ensemble is called upon to provide a full, rich sound. At other times, gentle and quiet pleading is required. Here it was always intense, focused, and full.
Individual members of the choir were effectively used to portray specific characters: Matthew, his father and mother, spoken recitation (which was usually accompanied by solo piano), and a host of solos that added breadth and depth to the proceedings. The soloists moved to the front of the stage for their singing, which helped with the dramatic flow.
It is a testament to the choir's talent and depth that all the solo singers (too numerous to list individually) were first-rate: from wailing grief to gutsy blues, from innocent boy to philosophical musings.
The piano served as the backbone of the ensemble, and Johnston's playing was masterful yet sensitive. Cellist Masarie was probably the second most employed. Her playing, along with Dharamraj, Ronnevik, and Barker, provided much of the string's foundation. Young's solid clarinet playing added a distinct timbre, as did the skilled playing of percussionist Yin. Guitarist Pecoraro got to showcase his slide guitar playing in the blues.
Conductor Christopher Gilliam evoked the innumerable emotions inherent in the score from the choir. His command of and sensitivity to both the ensemble and the soloists was excellent. And for the choir's part, they were incredibly responsive to Gilliam's every gesture.
Stage direction was undertaken by Michael Kamtman, whose guidance led to smooth transitions between the solo and choral sections. A simple split-rail fence attracted the audience's attention to the story, and the visual projections (no name for who organized them) of grasslands, stars, protest marches, clouds, and landscapes provided an added dimension to the concert.
The large audience in attendance remained silent for several seconds in response to the emotional weight of the score before showing its appreciation with enthusiastic applause.