By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
When Craig Hella Johnson first heard the story of Matthew Shepard, he knew he wanted to compose a piece of music about it.
Maybe, he thought, a song.
Johnson, the music director and founder of the chamber choir Conspirare, ended up writing a three-movement oratorio.
Conspirare will perform “Considering Matthew Shepard” at Bowling Green State University Monday Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. in Kobacker Hall. The performance is part of a two-day residency by Johnson and Conspirare. (See details of residency here.) The performance will be followed by a talk back in Bryan Recital Hall. Advance tickets for community members are $7 and $3 for students and children. All tickets are $10 the day of the performance. Call 419-372-8171 or purchase online at www.bgsu.edu/arts.
Johnson remembers it was a singer in the ensemble who first told him about Shepard’s death. The story of the young gay man’s torture and death in Laramie, Wyoming, outraged the nation. It captivated Johnson for the same reason.
“He just looked like the boy next door,” Johnson said. “It was quite extraordinary that this could happen to him. … It could have been me.”
One section of “Considering Matthew Shepard” is “Ordinary Boy.”
“That’s the crux of it,” the composer said.
People hear about hate crimes, but “he put a face on it.”
He added: “Hate crimes are spiking again, I’m sad to report. We don’t hear about most of them.”
And the way Shepard died, tortured and left tied to a fence barely alive had symbolic resonance.
Coming up with a musical response to Shepard’s death took a long period to germinate.
“It grew over time,” Johnson said.
He has often performed Bach’s Passions and realized this was the form he needed to use.
From “maybe a song” the idea bloomed into more than 100 minutes of music. In an age of listening to music on shuffle, few people are composing long-form works.
Johnson said: “I know we have the capacity for these larger arcs, and I’m interested in continuing to experience that.”
Johnson didn’t want to compose something that only appealed to classical music lovers. “I wanted a broad range of people to come and appreciate it,” he said. Bach used chorales based on familiar hymn tunes as a way of connecting his audience to the story.
Johnson aspired “to have a lot of friendly entry points.”
“Certainly this project is to honor the memory of Matthew, so that we wouldn’t forget … and people would learn about Matt and what happened and what happens when some of the language we use then can become permeated in our culture.”
Those hateful words give license to some act in the most extreme, violent ways.
Taking on such a profound theme is why Johnson formed Conspirare in 1991 in Austin, Texas.
“I just loved the idea of envisioning a professional vocal ensemble that could have world class musical artistic standards and be a conduit for our larger selves,” he said. “We believe music has the power to change lives, and we’re dedicated to that in our organization.”
University singers both from BGSU and the University of Toledo as well as members of other community choirs will join Conspirare for one movement of “Considering Matthew Shepard.”
Since its formation as a chamber choir, Conspirare has also created a larger symphonic choir that performs large choral works, and a youth outreach with three choirs.
The members of the chamber choir are drawn from a roster of professional singers who are “at the top of their game.” They live throughout the country and come together when summoned to perform with Conspirare. Otherwise they perform in operas, musical theater productions, church choirs, and recitals as well as teach.
“There’s a great depth experience and a broad spectrum of experience,”Johnson said. “They are very much a curious bunch. They love to explore new repertoire and different styles. Each comes from a slightly different avenue. … The ensemble is really enhanced by that.”
During Conspirare’s two-day residency Johnson and the singers will work with students. The singers are not only accomplished professionals “they’re also great human beings,” the director said. “They’re interested in how art can be a conduit for these conversations, for potential growth and transformation. It’s very much in alignment with our mission.”