Considering Matthew Shepard, an oratorio by conductor/composer Craig Hella Johnson, will be presented by UGA choral ensembles under the composer’s direction in two upcoming concerts: Friday, March 17, at 8PM, in Hodgson Hall; and Saturday, March 18, at 7:30PM, at the First Presbyterian Church in midtown Atlanta.

Students in MUSI 8130 (Seminar: “Innovating the Ensemble”) have examined this new oratorio. Two seminar members contributed the following overview:

About the Composer and the Composition (by Leonard Ligon)

One of the most exciting parts about this concert is that it is being conducted by the composer himself, Dr. Craig Hella Johnson! Nothing describes Dr. Johnson, the conductor, composer/arranger, teacher, and creative better than a description of his inspiration and his talents taken from his own official website:

His inspiration: discovering the music within, shaping it and revealing its essence.
His gift: inviting and transporting us deep into the musical experience through a broad repertoire, modern, classic and ancient to a place of discovery and engagement.

Dr. Johnson was born in Minnesota in 1962 and studied at St. Olaf College, Juilliard, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and finally Yale University where he received his Doctorate of Musical Arts degree. Dr. Johnson then founded his own choral ensemble, Conspirare, originally known as the New Texas Festival in 1991. By 1999 the ensemble had become a regularly performing group. They have been nominated for 8 Grammy Awards winning one in 2015 for their album The Sacred Spirit of Russia in the category of Best Choral Performance.

Dr. Johnson is also an avid educator. Dr. Johnson previously spent eight years as director of choral activities for the University of Texas, and now he serves as Resident Artist in Choral Music at Texas State University. In April of 2013, Dr. Johnson was named the 2013 Texas State Musician, the second classical musician to receive the honor, and in May of 2013 Johnson was named Music Director/Conductor of Vocal Arts Ensemble in Cincinnati, Ohio.

About Dr. Johnson and the Piece:

Dr. Johnson heard about the murder of Matthew Shepard in the news just as everyone else in world did, and like most in the world he was deeply troubled by this heinous hate crime. The thought of a boy being tied to a fence and beaten to death is absolutely heart wrenching. Dr. Johnson found as the years went by, after the murders were convicted and put away and as the public began to forget about the event altogether, the crime was still causing him grief. After about twelve years of these emotions never subsiding of diminishing, Dr. Johnson decided he needed to respond and this piece was born.

Dr. Johnson wrote this piece with a variety of genres and styles. He hopes that the piece will break down the walls between different choral genres because it is unclear what genre this piece is: sometimes it is like a theater piece, other times an oratorio, and sometimes an opera. Hopefully the broad range of musical styles will help anyone who comes to the concert, regardless of musical background, to find something they can relate to thus spreading the message to the widest possible audience.

(Re)considering Matthew Shepard (by Moises Cunha)

Music is one of the most important and fundamental aspects of human culture and has the power of representing every aspect of the human experience such as joy, anger, despair, sadness. The piece Considering Matthew Shepard by Craig Hella Johnson not only gives us the opportunity to feel moved by its expressive musical content, but also to be affected by its connection with the story in which the music is based.

The story behind the piece is based on the Matthew Shepard, a student at University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and left to die because of his sexual orientation. The story is much more than a terrible homophobic statement, but actually encompasses feelings of hate, intolerance, prejudice, discrimination, judgment, selfishness, that more or less are present in our lives. The work Considering Matthew Shepard ultimately questions the meaning of our existence. Why are we here? What does it mean to exist? Are humans unable to think collectively? Are we unable to live in harmony with each other?

The relatively recent growth of social media usage has had many negative implications in our lives: it has exposed our inability to accept differences and to think collectively in favor of the well-being of our civilization. Craig Johnson, however, gives us the opportunity to reconsider smaller attitudes in our daily lives: to learn to respect and tolerate different opinions among our friends and colleagues; to understand and respect people independently of their physical characteristics; to support women’s rights; to understand that we are all equal regardless of age, skin color and/or ethnic group; to respect everyone’s sexual orientation; to respect people’s religious choice or lack of faith and spirituality; to respect the individual’s political view.

In times where words seem to fail, there is no better chance to prove that music can make a difference in this world by giving us an opportunity for inner growth by reconsidering our attitudes and actions, and to believe in a better world.