June 8, 2018 at 10:11 am PST | by John Paul King
Acclaimed composer Craig Johnson brings Matthew Shepard oratorio to LA for Pride

Craig Hella Johnson will lead Conspirare from piano in his acclaimed oratorio ‘Considering Matthew Shepard.’ Photo by James Goulden. (Courtesy of Conspirare)

Pride is a time for gathering together to celebrate who we are as a community, and how far we have come – but it’s also a time to commemorate the struggles and hardships of the past, so we can be reminded of why the fight for acceptance and equality must still go on.

One of the most resonant reminders is the 1998 tragedy of Matthew Shepard. It was a hate crime that quickly became a cultural touchstone, and inspired profound works of art in all media.

One such work is “Considering Matthew Shepard,” an oratorio composed by renowned composer/conductor Craig Hella Johnson – who will lead his Grammy-winning choir, Conspirare (along with a small instrumental ensemble and projected imagery), in a performance of this acclaimed piece at the Ford Theatre on June 15 and 16.

Johnson wrote the piece in 2012 as his very first full concert-length composition.

Why, so long after it happened, did he choose the Shepard incident as his subject matter?

“It’s really the other way around.  I have this feeling that it chose me.  Obviously, what happened to Matt pierced a lot of our hearts – but the unique aspect for me was the way it continued to knock on my door, like there was something there that wanted to be expressed.  After many years, I had to finally respond to it,” Johnson says.

After fifteen years of percolation, he had strong ideas about how to approach it.

“One area of music that’s really close to me is the ‘Passion’ setting – so, I set out to create a modern version of that.  It’s a framework which focuses on the last suffering days of an iconic life.  It was my hope  that this would be a way to help us remember Matt – and so many other lives that have been lost to hate crimes.  Matt was certainly the most well-known, but there was also James Byrd, that same year, and a whole generation of men and women that have gone unnoticed and unacknowledged,” he says.

It’s not just about remembering, though.

“I love the idea of a musical container, a big piece that can bring people together in a communal way where we can face ourselves together – not in a punishing way, but to the point where we break down some of our defenses.  We can reflect on ourselves, and ask those larger questions – ‘Why does this happen?  What do I have to do with this?’  Even those of us who might think we are on the outside of this, on the innocent side of this – we can ask ourselves how we might participate in the creation of a culture where such events could happen,” Johnson continues.

Johnson says his intention to bring people together is reflected in his musical choices.

“There’s a broad spectrum of musical styles.  There’s certainly some classical, some operatic aria.  But it was important to me that this piece would encompass musical styles that speak to all the people in this ‘tent’ – this family of humanity that is all included in the experience.  So, there’s Gregorian chant, there’s choral polyphony, there’s folk and country, there’s some blues – it’s a real melding of styles for sure,” he explains.

There are parts of the piece that he’s particularly fond of – such as a section with drums where the singers hurl their hurt and their rage into what he calls “a musical bonfire” for a group catharsis – but there is one moment which has special meaning for him.

“It’s when ‘Matt’ becomes ‘Matthew.’  That differentiation came to me from Judy Shepard, when I asked her how she and Dennis carry this deep loss out into the world, this grief that’s always refreshed for them year after year.  She said, ‘Matthew Shepard is the iconic name that travels the world.  We remember Matt, he was our son – that’s our private grief,’” Johnson says.

“I was able to get some of Matt’s journals, from when he was in high school and early college – that was sacred stuff, for me to get to hold those – and I set some of those into the second movement, I call it ‘Ordinary Boy.’  He loved being in the theater, so that section is like musical theater.  We go through this litany of things he loved – it’s really buoyant and fun, kind of effervescent.  And then, later on, there is a tenor solo called ‘In Need of Breath’ where a transformation takes place – this is where Matt becomes Matthew,” he continues.

So how does his oratorio fit into the Age of Trump?

“We had no sense, when we did the premiere, that this whole topic was going to become hyper-relevant again.  That’s why it’s become so meaningful to be singing it again, to be remembering that these things are happening more and more – the numbers have been spiking since November 2016, and our beautiful trans sisters and brothers, they’re just experiencing it so much right now,” he says.

But it’s not just a somber experience – there’s hope in it, too.

“There’s a movement near the end, called ‘All of Us.’  It’s an invitation to drop all these labels that separate us, and really start seeing each other as a human family – to learn how to live with each other, in love and respect,” Johnson says. “It’s a dream that feels far away sometimes.”

He pauses to reflect.

“I remember, as a young boy, having this question in the face of these confounding realities, these acts of hate, — asking myself, in the midst of all this darkness, is there love to be found?  That was my operating question as I went into this project,” Johnson says.

Did he find an answer?

“Yes.  In performing this with my colleagues, and with these extraordinary audiences we’ve encountered, there is something rich in connecting over the experience.  It’s in the ‘doing’ of this that I have found a kind of ‘living’ answer,” Johnson says.

He is hoping to share that answer with you when he brings “Considering Matthew Shepard” to the Ford Theatre in the middle of our month of Pride.

“Considering Matthew Shepard” will be performed at Ford Theatre (2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E, Los Angeles) on June 15 and 16, as part of the City of West Hollywood and WeHo Arts’ One City One Pride.  Tickets are available at FordTheatres.org or by calling 323 461-3673.

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