In the days after gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die in a remote field near Laramie in October 1998, Craig Hella Johnson thought about how he and the world should respond.
“I will never forget that morning,” recalled Johnson, who was the artistic director of the Grammy-winning San Francisco-based Chanticleer male choir. “Just hearing the news had such an impact. And the weeks and months that followed, it just stayed with me. I thought at the time I would love to respond in some way. Much of the grief and the anger and confusion. I didn’t write it at the time, but I kept that with me for many years.”
It took Johnson nearly 20 years to come up with that response, a 100-minute contemporary oratorio “Considering Matthew Shepard” that he and his Austin-based Grammy-winning choir Conspirare are bringing to Centennial Hall on Tuesday, April 16.
“There are many hate crimes that happen, sadly, to this day. But there was something about this particular story that found a way to draw international attention and highlight all of these issues,” Johnson said.
Johnson composed “Considering Matthew Shepard” in 2016 and wrote the libretto, which opens with the prologue and a glimpse of an “Ordinary Boy:”
“He felt ordinary yearning and ordinary fears / With an ordinary hope for belonging.”
That takes us to that night on Oct. 6, 1998, that culminated in Shepard’s brutal death and the aftermath, when religious fanatics from the Westboro Baptist Church shouted at mourners, including Shepard’s parents, as they entered the funeral.
Johnson revisits the rage nationally and internationally as Shepard’s story spread from newscast to newscast, and the feeling that with his death at the hands of two men driven by homophobic bigotry we had somehow lost our innocence:
“Where O where has the innocence gone? / Where O where has it gone? / Rains rolling down wash away my memory; / Where O where has it gone?”
But “Considering Matthew Shepard” also has a ray of hope, a sense that we can move beyond our hate and embrace our differences.
“It’s a strange thing because Matt’s story is a very sad and tragic story, but the invitation is one to contemplate something different,” said Johnson, who will conduct the 31-person mixed choir and eight instrumentalists on Tuesday night.
Conspirare, which Johnson formed in 1991 and began regularly performing with in 1999, has taken “Considering Matthew Shepard” to 23 cities since the choir started touring the piece nearly two years ago. The work, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2017, was recently published and is now being performed around the world.
“There has been a huge response, a huge open-hearted, deep response from people. It’s been very moving,” said Johnson, 56.
Every once in a while as the music moves from gentle wind blowing to the heart-pounding scenes of the young man being beaten, Johnson will hear quiet sobs coming from the audience.
“Just being in the concert hall each evening, there is a way in which people have been listening to this story and this piece ... that is very engaged and rapt attention,” he said. “It’s been extremely gratifying, of course, as a composer. It’s just moving to be able to share not just Matt’s story but what is, for me really, an invitation for audience members and for all of us ... to learn to love each other as a human family.”
Conspirare performed the work in Washington, D.C., last October — two weeks after the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s murder — when his remains were interred in the National Cathedral.
“It was a very powerful experience,” Johnson recalled. “For us to be there at this really profound moment.”
“Music in general, and certainly this piece also, can have a very piercing effect,” he said. “Music is a language that speaks to us in many ways much more deeply than words themselves. Music is a language that has a deep and penetrating capacity.”