Vocal Arts Ensemble sings a wrenching, and still relevant, story in 'Considering Matthew Shepard'

'This is an invitation to love'
Vocal Arts Ensemble sings a wrenching, and still relevant, story in 'Considering Matthew Shepard'
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 26, 2017

CINCINNATI -- "Considering Matthew Shepard," a 90-minute concert that Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati will perform March 4-5 at Xavier University, asks audience members to do just that.

Consider Matthew Shepard.

Not just the young gay man who, 20 years ago, was beaten, tied to a fence post and left to die. Not just the blond, angel-faced 20-year-old who was the face of the 2009 hate-crime prevention act signed into law by President Barack Obama. But Matt, son of Judy and Dennis Shepard, University of Wyoming student, an ordinary boy who loved theater and pasta and friends and "Jeopardy."

Matthew Shepard

Consider that boy, asks composer Craig Hella Johnson, the Grammy Award-winning artistic director of Conspirare and music director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble. Consider, too, your role in healing the world that allowed his life to end so brutally.

"How do we ever get to healing?" Johnson said. "The only way we can heal the divisions and this sense of separateness is if we do the healing together. … Our healing comes as a we, not a me."

Vocal Arts Ensemble will be only the third group to perform "Considering Matthew Shepard," which Johnson wrote for Austin-based Conspirare. Its performance of the concert-length work is nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album, and a few Conspirare singers will accompany Johnson and VAE for the March performances.

"It's a passing down of the storytelling," Johnson said.

Cincinnati Opera will provide staging, light and sound for the Cincinnati performances.

The strong artistic talent in Cincinnati and collaborative nature of the region's many arts organizations are part of what drew Johnson to take the job leading VAE three years ago.

"It's something special when one senses there's a culture that's been cultivated in a city," Johnson said. "It's not just a gig for the singers."

"Considering Matthew Shepard" will ask VAE singers, who typically perform classical pieces, to cover a wide range of musical styles. Johnson began his tribute to Shepard as a Passion piece, a sacred music style telling the story of Jesus' crucifixion, but ended with a concert that ranges from sacred music to country-western, from gospel music and Gregorian chants to songs that echo musical theater.

Johnson said he hopes the variety of music styles helps everyone find a way to connect with Shepard.

"There's an evolution to something like this," Johnson said. "I just needed to write a song for Matt. And then, it became a big, long song, many songs … and then, all of a sudden, it's out in the world.

"I didn't set out for this to be a cultural game changer," Johnson added. "But we've really felt the impact of this to be a catalyst for conversations."

"This is a great opportunity to keep that memory of who he was, beside what happened, alive," said Michael Cotrell, president of PFLAG Cincinnati. "And it's a great reminder that, the thing is, something like this still is possible. It could happen today."

Described as a "fusion oratorio," the work requires singers to master emotionally charged pieces and hold the audience's attention for nearly two hours.

"The stakes are a lot higher with this," said Jason Vest, a tenor who will sing an aria in the voice of Shepard, after he has been beaten. "There's a sense of obligation to get it right for Craig and for Matthew. When you deal with a subject this tragic, you don't want to make it trivial. … It starts about being one person, but ends up being about all of us."

Vest also is a professor of voice and assistant provost at Northern Kentucky University, where Johnson will speak with students the week before the performances.

At Harvard University, the first place Johnson performed the work with a group other than Conspirare, the 54-year-old composer found himself explaining to some of the student singers who Shepard was. "Considering Matthew Shepard" was their first awareness of the 1998 hate crime.

Two decades later, Shepard's death still feels relevant, Johnson said, as we see hate crimes in the news and people shouting at each other over different views.

"I hate to be dramatic, but we have to claim this," Johnson said. "This is the big issue now, and I want to claim that. This is an invitation to love."