William Ford | 01 JUL 2019
ATLANTA, GA— The American prairies seem endlessly long and mostly uninteresting to people who drive across the country’s vast mid-section. The big sky with the big sun makes sunglasses and air conditioning mandatory in the summer. In the winter the wind and the gray can be numbing. But to those who live there and have learned to their land, it is a landscape made up of small and beautiful miracles. The wildflowers, the stalks of wheat, the symmetry of the corn rows, and the windblown trees combine to make a breathtaking landscape.
Wyoming is one of those places that most people will never see, yet it has that unique prairie beauty. Except that on October 12, 1998 the landscape played unintended host to a savage and inhumane killing of a young man. Near Laramie, that’s where young Matthew Shepard was tortured, only to be stripped of his consciousness, his peace, and ultimately his life.
His death, like the deaths of many others, was born out of such terrible emotions like envy, hate, and rage. The most ordinary of young men, Matthew Shepard became far more famous in his death, not only because of the brutality shown by his killers but in fact because of Matthew’s ordinariness. He was a gay college student and his torturers felt compelled to snuff that out.
Considering Matthew Shepard is a theatrical cantata composed by Craig Hella Johnson as a remembrance of Matthew and to challenge listeners to examine their own emotional reactions to other people, especially those who are perceived as “different.” Considering was performed Saturday night at the Sandy Springs (GA) Performing Arts Center. This approximately 1070-seat auditorium provides state-of-the-art facilities combined with an intimacy that perfectly suited the material.
The performers were the Atlanta-based Coro Vocati, a group of about 20 professional singers, whose musical and artistic director is John Dickson. Together, they created a powerful and compelling staging of Considering that included top-flight singing and performing. Too often, contemporary classical music is incorrectly labeled as inaccessible and unlistenable. Considering confronts those characterizations and deposits them in the bin of inaccurate tropes.
Though a quote from Bach’s Keyboard Prelude No. 1 begins the work, the music is original, yet it derives inspiration from many styles- spirituals, Gregorian chants, romantic ballads, and cowboy and western music. The composer brilliantly chose the correct stylistic reference to enhance the emotional message of each of the cantata’s sections.
In the collective voices of Coro Vocati, Mr. Johnson’s music came to life and the story of Matthew landed its target in the listener’s heart. From the Prologue that introduced us to the beauty of Wyoming, to the story of Matthew’s passion, and finally to the return to the picturesque peace of Wyoming that Matthew loved, the singers stayed true to their mission of “…creating music at the highest level of choral artistry.”
An early, yet powerful section of the work is titled “ Ordinary Boy,” here sung by Katie Woolf, Holly McCarren, and Alex Masten. In it we learn of Matthew’s ordinariness- he is your son, he is my son and he is a young man full of joy, hope, and longing. Its power derives, in part, from the picture it paints of a young man drawn from his own words. “The Fence (Before)” is about Matthew’s stark, painful night alone, sung by the gifted Brandon Odom. “The Fence (that Night)” was a sensitively staged tableau of Matthew’s suffering, featuring the warm and living voice of Landon Scriber.
Following that is one of the most jarring and emotionally challenging sections called “A Protestor,” where Fred Phelps and his hate-filled followers from the Westboro Baptist Church spewed their angry venom during Mathew’s funeral, using abhorrent, deplorable signs and slogans. The video accompanying this section contained news footage and it was compelling.
“The Innocence,” a wistful longing for peace, featured Wes Stoner, who performed with near technical and musical perfection. Alison Mann was featured in “The Fence (one week later)” a section that reflects on the outpouring of support for the Shepard family once the story was widely known. Her soprano voice was rich and controlled. “Meet Me Here” was Matthew’s invitation to be with him in our memories; Shannan O‘Dowd found the heart of this music to share it powerfully with us.
Near the conclusion of the work, the section “All of Us” included voices from the Atlanta Women’s Chorus, Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, and Oursong- the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Chorus. This uber-powerful section brought the audience to its feet in appreciation.
In all ways, this is a grand work performed by in Coro Vocati’s highly talented singers. Kudos should go also to the eight musicians who accompanied the singer; they managed to sound much larger than one might expect from their numbers.
Yet even great as this performance was, there was a minor glitch: the close microphoning of the sopranos, especially those with brighter hotter high ends, seemed to drive the auditorium’s sound system into a bit of clipping and every so often, some of the high notes seemed to trigger the resonance of the speakers (or something else in the auditorium), creating a slight buzzing.
Considering Matthew Shepard received a stellar performance by Coro Vocati. The text reminds us that we are capable of great things, but also capable of doing the unspeakable. It cautions that, unfortunately, none of us is totally immune from the latter. This program should be repeated as often as possible, not just in Sandy Springs, but in all places where its message should be heard. ■
William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and www.atlantamusiccritic.com