Grammy winner Craig Hella Johnson teams up with the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia this weekend to bring a piece of LGBT history to Atlanta.
Johnson’s latest work, “Considering Matthew Shepard,” made its Southeastern debut in Athens this week and UGA choirs will perform in Atlanta this Saturday.
Daniel Bara, director of choral activities at UGA, and colleague J.D. Burnett regularly bring in guest conductors. Burnett performed “Considering Matthew Shepard” with Johnson’s choir in Texas, and the two decided now was the time to bring this story to UGA.
“This is not a typical choir concert that you’d find at UGA,” Bara said. “It’s about 100 minutes of music. It’s like a long symphony, or what we call an oratorio.”
Oratorios combine orchestral forces with choir and solo singers and are typically about a biblical topic. The most famous such piece is Handel’s “Messiah.”
“This is meant to be in some way connected to that tradition, an extended piece of music that tells the story of some sort of character,” Bara said.
The character here is Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten and left to die because of his sexuality. Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, and his murder is regarded as one of the most notorious anti-LGBT hate crimes in American history. It sparked the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and his parents created the Matthew Shepard Foundation in his name.
“[The oratorio] not only points out the injustices of that specific incident, but invites the listener to recognize our own prejudices and our own methods of healing after tragedy, and it ultimately becomes a hymn to unity,” Bara said.
Bara said one of the things that makes the show so novel is how it reads almost like musical theater. “Considering Matthew Shepard” brings together a mix of music genres, including both gospel and country, with oral storytelling. Poetry recitations, along with readings from Shepard’s family, add power to the show, which tells not only of his death, but the trial and funeral afterward.
“A big part of this is the Westboro Baptist Church drove across the country to protest his funeral,” Bara said. “They had signs that said, ‘God hates fags’ and ‘Fags die in Hell.’ Just terrible stuff. Imagine going to a funeral and having this toxic venom spewed about your son.”
The UGA Hodgson Singers and Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs, along with a chamber group from the UGA Symphony Orchestra, will take part. Bara said they began rehearsing in January.
“I think they’re excited about it because of the social ramifications of the piece. It’s not often that you have a choir concert that has an important impact on our community,” he said. “I think we feel like this is the perfect time to be able to do it. Sadly, I feel like since 1998,our country has gone through an amazing and wonderful transformation in general for the LGBT community. I feel the current national rhetoric suggests maybe we’re losing traction on some of these issues. I feel like it’s the perfect time for us to revisit this story and see what it’s like to be a human and a good citizen of this world and embrace everyone’s differences.”