At Cincinnati’s May Festival, an Ambitious Oratorio Inspired by Tragedy

United StatesUnited States Craig Hella Johnson, Considering Matthew Shepard: Soloists, Vocal Arts Ensemble, Corbett Auditorium, University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati, OH. 23.5.2019. (RDA)

Craig Hella Johnson Considering Matthew Shepard (2016)

On a bare stage, with the silhouettes of 34 vocalists in low light, a screen behind them showing a landscape of grass and sky, we hear Bach’s familiar Prelude and Fugue in C Major for keyboard, with composer/conductor Craig Hella Johnson seated alone at the piano.

A small ensemble of musicians were seated at eye level near a rustic fence — the kind that one might encounter in the vastness of the Wyoming plains. Other than that, and a handful of stools, the stage is bare.

That fence becomes a symbol for the deadly site of the crucifixion of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard — in the words of the libretto, an ‘ordinary boy’— who on October 6, 1998 was driven to a desolate spot in the outskirts of Laramie. There he was beaten, tortured, and left to die by two assailants, drunk and high on drugs, who had met him in a local watering hole earlier that evening.

Matt was indeed openly gay, and perhaps unlike the stereotype, was a lover of the outdoors: fishing, camping, and hiking. He also loved the arts, as well as (his words) jogging, hiking, poetry, Wyoming — and hugging.

Craig Hella Johnson’s extraordinarily conceived, ambitiously laid out, immaculately executed Considering Matthew Shepard took the stage of Cincinnati’s Corbett Auditorium last week, as part of the venerable May Festival. For most of its two-hour duration, the oratorio held the audience enthralled by a daring mix of Americana and classicism. The composer’s marvelous mélange began with Bach, then travelled through gospel, jazz, and country idioms, plus pure post-Romantic choral writing — all combined with unselfconscious bravado and uncanny skill.

It was quite a triumph for Johnson and his forces — Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble — who sang impeccably, accompanied by a half-dozen musicians plus the composer at the piano. They were helped beyond measure by Rod Caspers, whose stage direction turned a potentially static oratorio into a piece of drama. Going far beyond singing (which they did gloriously), the ensemble spoke, yodeled, hooted, drummed, and cried out in pain and anger. Among the many unforgettable moments, some turned magical, such as baritone Simon Barrad’s stunning solo turns. After the music, the composer and two of the ensemble singers held a question-and-answer session.

Considering Matthew Shepard can already hold its own with a few masterpieces, and unlike many an oratorio, never overstays its welcome.

Rafael de Acha

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