Considering Matthew Shepard was presented by City Recital Hall and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for one night only and played as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. This is quite poignant writing this, as its six years to the day that I first set foot in Australia, coincidentally on the first day of the 2014 Mardi Gras.
More importantly, it’s over 20 years since the brutal gay-hate bashing and murder of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. This work in his name reaches across continents and time to move the audience with sadness for the victim, yes, but more. There is a strong compassion and love and forgiveness in the work and voices raised for that purpose have reach beyond mere sadness.
The composer Craig Hella Johnson created the work in the lead-up to the anniversary of Matthew’s death and it is a piece which lends itself to multiple ways of sharing. On this occasion, it was Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ VOX, young adult choir, to bring the work to City Recital Hall conducted by VOX Music Director Elizabeth Scott and orchestration by the Sydney Philharmonia Ensemble. Shaun Rennie directed the work with a command of tone which avoided theatrics in favour of mood setting through symbolic group shapings which enhanced the work of the choir.
Taking an early touchpoint of “an ordinary boy” Considering Matthew Shepard uses some spoken contextualisation to site the individual sections in a time scale. Some individual voices will be raised, Matthew’s father and mother have small solo sections, and there are duos to quartets which appear during the 1hr 45 minute recital. However, it is the massed voices which carry the weight of the emotion and this reverent, disciplined, focussed group are as excellent in demeanour, turning gently towards a soloist or standing silent in the aisles, as in vocal execution.
Musically, Considering Matthew Shepard mixes styles with ease and a fluid way that enhances the through line of the piece. The programme lists “Lutheran hymnody, chant, blues, cowboy songs and Broadway” but nothing jars as the Passion settings of JS Bach provide a solace of recognition. Recognisable, also, are the lower dynamics of Georgian chant and when a solo female artist sings slow, smooth blues bathed in red, it’s chilling despite the lyricism. There is even an echo of Frère Jacques as a poignant reminder of the child his mother remembers as Matt not Mathew.
Cello is the saddest instrument but in this arrangement it takes its cues from the context of the work. A cyclist finds the young man, close to death, tied to a fence and the cello searches with him for signs of life. Then, as candles are brought in, the piano picks out single notes of grief. There is also a welcome wail of electric guitar after a section in which the male choristers spew the Westboro hate. The conductor tucks the orchestra discreetly under the singing for the main part but in a section dealing with a flame in the heart of the distressed community, the volume gets louder as the anger compounds. The wall of vibration is powered by people, as is the legacy of this terribly sad event.
On this night, the concert was aided by an exceptional lighting design which took the amber tones of outdoor Wyoming as its base. But when the murder happens warmth becomes cold blue night which, combining with the crystal of the voices, shatters the audience. The colours are used evocatively, even the salience of the final purple chosen without brashness or excess modernity. The audio was adequate when microphones were used specifically but quite a few of the details of the text were lost to me when the choir and smaller groups were singing unmiked. It didn’t, though, detract from the richness of the experience.
There’s an ethereal ending to Considering Matthew Shepard and the long standing ovation was testament to how the audience was moved by the work. For me, aside from the beautiful, stirring music, the attraction of attending was about community and celebrating a life which had such an impact on contemporary freedoms. Though even I was unprepared for the experience of live music as healing. In the section which still resonates through my soul, a quartet reflects on the human spirit and the baseness we share with the perpetrators. There is forgiveness there, and a deep, challenging yearning to be better.
Concert images credit: © Robert Catto, with thanks and gratitude to Judith