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JOHNSON: Considering Matthew Shepard

CD Button Conspirare and instrumental ensemble, Johnson. English texts. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807638.39 (2)

Recordings Matthew Shephard Cover 1216
Critics Choice Button 1015

THIS IS THE WORLD-PREMIERE recording of Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio for chorus, soloists and chamber ensemble. Carefully considered, the piece is Johnson’s deeply personal response to a hate crime—Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998, which raised public awareness of the threats to the LGBT community. The composer has framed his assiduously conceived work as a Passion, thus establishing Shepard as a Christ figure. The texts are drawn from such diverse writers as Hildegard von Bingen, William Blake, Sufi and Rabindranath Tagore, as well as contemporary Wyoming poets Sue Wallis and John Nesbitt. Johnson, in collaboration with Michael Dennis Brown, also contributed texts, and several outstanding poems are from Lesléa Newman’s book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.

The prologue (three tracks) begins with the immortal Prelude in C Major by J. S. Bach, who composed the most famous and powerful Passion in history. After the chorus delicately joins in, Johnson jumps to a quick couplet from a cowboy song (complete with yodeling), followed by the first number, “Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass” (with a vivid text by Sue Wallis), celebrating the joys of Wyoming’s open spaces. When we get to Johnson’s setting of “I’m alive! I’m alive, I’m alive, golden,” it’s impossible to be unmoved; the irony cuts deep. The second number in the prologue (“Ordinary Boy”) introduces Matt (as his friends and family called him) as an actual person, not just a symbol of antigay violence. The more we learn about Matt, the more deeply we grieve. It’s hard to listen to his mother, Judy (Helen Karloski, with a heart-tugging tremor in her voice), singing about him without welling up. Then we hear Matt himself singing excerpts from his own high-school journal: “I love Europe and driving and music and helping and smiling and Charlie and Jeopardy.” Tenor Matt Alber sings Matt with appealing ingenuousness and the exuberance of a young man facing a bright future. Johnson’s musical vocabulary, here and throughout, is comfortingly consonant, an impressive union of country, folk/pop, gospel, plainchant, hymn and blues with a touch of musical theater. His skill at writing for chorus, and for Conspirare in particular—he is the founder and music director of this superb group—is always apparent. 

In the Passion itself (the bulk of the work), we hear, surprisingly and movingly, from the Fence to which Matt’s killers tied him and left him to die. The Fence, of course, is the only witness to Matt’s death, and its presence as a character in retrospect seems inevitable. “His face streaked with moonlight and blood / I tightened my grip and held on,” laments the Fence, in one of its four songs (with texts by Newman). The odious Westboro Baptist Church also makes an appearance, providing a bone-chilling reminder that its members protested at Matt’s funeral. The phrase “Kreuzige, kreuzige!,” sung by the women, accompanies the male chorus as an ostinato; the crucifixion reference solidifies Shepard’s status as a Christ figure. 

After this we need some relief, and it’s provided by a wonderful blues number called “Keep It Away from Me,” in which the irresistibly swinging music delivers on the title’s imperative. This song is rendered with great idiomatic feel by Laura Mercado-Wright and a perfectly blended backup vocal trio. (All the well-cast soloists are members of Conspirare.) Another memorable number, haunting in its starkness, is “I Am Like You,” which dares to contemplate the almost unthinkable possibility that each of us might have a little of the killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, in us. After all, each of us has “come unhinged, and made mistakes and hurt people very much.”  

The subject of this work makes it difficult to criticize, but at a certain point, I felt I had heard too many numbers with sweetly reverential music, easy-listening harmonies and celestial choral singing. However, many listeners will find themselves in tears at points. Johnson makes the work optimistic and uplifting, best embodied by the hymn/spiritual “Meet Me Here,” the first number in the Epilogue, which ends with the quatrain “We’ll sing on through any darkness, / And our Song will be our sight. / We can learn to offer praise again / Coming home to the light.” With such movements, Johnson turns Shepard into an icon of love, hope, forgiveness and peace. —Joshua Rosenblum

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