Soundstream New Music. Elder Hall. 14 Oct 2023
Considering Matthew Shepard is billed as a “…modern day Passion for choir and ensemble reaching beyond tragedy to find peace, understanding and life-affirming joy.”
Does that pique your curiosity, especially the use of the the capitalised ‘P’? For a particular music demographic, the answer is ‘yes’. For many, I suspect the answer is ‘no’, and if that assessment is correct, then it’s a great shame, because Grammy-nominated Considering Matthew Shepard is one of the most achingly beautiful modern choral works ever created. It needs to be re-billed!
Conductor Jesse Budel’s program notes state that the work draws on diverse “…musical styles, including hymns, country, rock, jazz, plainchant, gospel and ballads”, almost in equal measure. As such, it is eminently easy to listen to, and should have wide appeal. The billing perhaps should seize on this because it deserves huge audiences despite its disturbing content. Considering Matthew Shepard is no stuffy ‘highbrow’ event. Rather, it is broadly accessible, affecting, deeply satisfying, and both provocative and disquieting at the same time. The music is highly enjoyable, and varied, and the songs are transparent in their meaning. It is theatrical in its staging, and co-producers Jesse Budel and Riana Chakravarti clearly understand that what is seen on stage (and throughout the auditorium) is just as important as what is heard.
So, who is Matthew Shepard, and why should we ‘consider’ him?
Matthew Shepard was – no longer ‘is’ – an American twenty-one-year-old University of Wyoming student who was beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson who pistol whipped him with a gun, robbed him, tied him to a fence in a lonely country field in freezing conditions, and then set fire to him before leaving him to die. He was found eighteen hours later, and died five days later in hospital without having gained consciousness. (I mention the names of Matthew’s assailants because they should be reviled forever.)
Matthew was gay, and the ensuing court case that sentenced McKinney and Henderson each to two consecutive life sentences in prison, did not hear the case as a hate crime as that didn’t exist as an indictable crime under the State of Wyoming’s criminal law at the time. The case did however prompt national action against homophobia and hate laws were passed during the Obama administration. Good things sometime emerge from evil, and Mathew’s murder has resulted in a number of positive developments from the queer community, and even foregrounded in art such as the stage play The Laramie Project (Matthew was murdered in the town Laramie), and composer Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard.
In 2013 award winning investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez published a book that suggested Matthew’s murder was not a hate crime but was more likely related to the drug trade. Needless to say, his thesis caused controversy with suggestions it diminished the vileness of the crime.
Regardless of what the full story is about Matthew’s cruel death, nothing can derogate from the evil that was perpetrated. The oratorio stands: it is about an “ordinary boy” who loved and was loved, who celebrated the majesty and mystery of the wide outdoors, who loved theatre and music and food and “feeling good”, who loved surprising and delighting friends and neighbours, who loved meeting new people, and who loved politics and learning languages. But he was an “ordinary boy”, as one of the songs in the oratorio explores, and he died an anything but ordinary death, and who is now immortalised in many ways, and is no longer ordinary.
Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio brings all this to a conscious level, and it is celebratory, sad, shocking, disturbing, and positive, and optimistic, and beautiful.
Conductor and musical director Jesse Budel has assembled a superb choir and excellent musical ensemble, which are joined by soloists Mark Oates and Jennifer Trijo. Musically, the result is first rate. At times the acoustic of the Elder Hall blurred the choir and crisp consonant sounds were being lost, but Budel set and maintained an appropriate pace that by and large ameliorated the issue. The staging of the performance was sublime. Lighting was carefully designed and executed to be sympathetic to the content being sung, and two large projection screens to the sides of the stage displayed images that were whimsical, funny, sad, and evocative. Modest amounts of haze made us feel we were at the site of Matthew’s savage and inhumane bashing. For some songs, some of the singers left the stage and located themselves around the auditorium with devastating emotional impact, and Budel controlled it all authoritatively. Bravo Budel and Chakravarti. Bravo.
Oates sang exceptionally well, and he bent the Elder acoustic to his wont. He hasn’t sung better. His In Need of Breath and Deer Song were almost breathtaking. Trijo was also at the top of her game, with crystal clear articulation and a mesmerising blend of gentle vibratory and straight tones.
Members of the choir also sang solo parts, and smaller groups. The lady’s quartet that sang Keep it Away from Me was a highlight. The affecting I am like you was sung a cappella and was very fine indeed.
Considering Matthew Shepard is a major work, and is approximately 100 minutes non-stop in length, even with two songs omitted for this performance. (Budel later informed me that one song was optional and the other is often cut to make the ending more straightforward.) Towards the end, the high emotion of the piece and being confined to one’s seat for the entire performance, it almost … almost … starts to drag, but no sooner does that thought start to creep into one’s mind when the tempo of the music surges and the singing and lyricism become an explosion of joy in the penultimate movement, All of Us!
And there it is. Ultimately joyous. A composition and a performance that anyone could enjoy. Anyone. Yes, it needs to be billed that way, and even though this is the second time that Budel has presented this work, it deserves to be staged heard again. Soundstream New Music and Budel are to be applauded for taking the risk a second time.
When: 12 to 14 Oct
Where: Elder Hall