Camerata Singers – Considering Matthew Shepard

Craig Hella Johnson

Throughout history so many tragic consequences have been made into art forms – murals, drama, oratorios, requiems. The musical and sensitive brilliance of Craig Hella Johnson has turned a 21st century tragedy into the stunning Considering Matthew ShepardUnder the assured direction of John Koza, the sturdy thirty members of Camerata Singers premiered this stellar work on March 6, 7, 8. Being present on Sunday afternoon, I was particularly struck by the discipline of performing this emotionally wrought work three days in a row. As is a month-of-March-custom for this group, admission was what the audience felt like contributing to benefit a local group, in this case, Harmony At Home. This group’s mission is “to end the cycles of violence and abuses by empowering children and young adults with knowledge, skills and confidence to lead healthy and productive lives.”  Because of the subject matter of Hella Johnson’s work, this is a perfect beneficiary.

By now, anyone who follows news is familiar with the story of October 6 – 12, 1998, when Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. From the rawness of the facts, Hella Johnson writes of an “ordinary boy.” This boy liked so many ordinary things and wrote about himself in a journal. These words are present in the music: “I love Wyoming very much, I love theatre, I love good friends, I love pasta, I love jogging…such an ordinary boy living ordinary days”. The vocal dynamic range of this section added to the drama and poignancy. Alternating with the work were spoken descriptions. As Matthew was active in the University of Wyoming LGBT Association, his life was most likely not so ordinary for Wyoming. Also included within the text are words from Matthew’s Mother, Judy, as well as his Father and other bystanders, protesters, and the two murderers. Perhaps they started out as “ordinary boys” as well, but chose the most brutal path to follow. At Matthew’s funeral as well as at the trial of the young murderers, anti-gay signs and protests were most visible.

Among the music sections, there were recitations filling in details that were read by various members of the chorus. The one visible prop was a fence section representing where Matthew was so cruelly tortured and left to die. If listening to the first section, “Prologue,” was not enough to draw raw emotion from the listeners, the addition of the fence posts before the “Passion” section represented so much simple yet visual context. This section also made use of one of many varied music styles – country western. Entitled “The Fence,” Hella Johnson recreates what might have been Matthew’s thoughts. Among those were “…will somebody someday stumble upon me?…will anyone remember me after I’m gone?…still, still, still, I wonder.” The section that followed was from the standpoint of The Fence (that night). The fence that held him, “the cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing.” “I cradled him just like a mother, I held him all night long.” In The Fence (one week later), the voice of the fence notes the ones that come with “flowers and photos prayers and poems crystals and candles” “…but I don’t mind being a shrine is better than being the scene of the crime.” Hella Johnson imagines Matthew’s thoughts during the almost eighteen hours tied to the fence – “I am dying in these cold hours for the resplendent glance of God.” As the sheriff’s deputy arrives, he told of Matthew’s Mother seeing a large doe lying near “as if the deer had been keeping him company all through the night.” From the deer’s point – “All night I lay there beside you I cradled your pain in my care.”

In the Epilogue, the invitation to meet me here “and we’ll dance with all the children who’ve been lost along the way, we will welcome each other coming home, this glorious day.” Thank You reminded to never forget, “…no one turned away…no one unworthy…no one ashamed.” All of Us combined folky pop, country western and acappella styles to remind again of the “ordinary boy” in all of us and that “only in love, love lifts us up”. The Reprise: Chant of Life (Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass) reminded of the opening scene description – “This chant of life cannot be heard, it must be felt”.

The soloists included two who, among other music ventures, are well known to the summer Bach Festival audiences, Soprano Jennifer Paulino, and Mezzo-Soprano Angelique Zuluaga. Tenor Adam Ferrer-Miller and Baritone Nikolas Nackley added their considerable talents. This quartet distinguished themselves in solo turns as well as incredible ensemble sections as created by Hella Johnson. From Camerata Singers, Aprille Lucero and Judi Moncrief lent their voices to the aforementioned pros as smooth as glass. Also joining in this concert set were two Camerata Futures students, Jacqueline Aguilar-Madrigal, and Belinda Gallardo. Piano duties were more than ably handled by George Peterson who accomplished the varied styles with complete confidence. 

No less important were the members of the instrumental ensemble who unfortunately were not listed in the program. Hoping that no one is left out, the following must also be applauded for their splendid and sensitive parts: Laura Burian, violin, Rebecca Stone, viola, Linda Mahrabian, cello, Stephanie Payne, bass, Karen Sremac, clarinet, Andrew Parker, guitar, Stuart Langsam, multi percussion instruments, Neal Goggans, percussion.

Once again, by coordinating all the vocal and instrumental forces, Koza has not only upheld a gold standard, but hit a platinum standard by programming this sensitive and timely work. Most of the music community knows that Koza, along with his wife Susan, will be leaving the area for Arizona in late summer. He will celebrate his final Camerata Singers program with Maurice Durufle’s Requiem on May 8 and 9. Another gold standard of the vocal literature that is sure to be memorable.

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