A powerful musical tribute to the legacy of one of America’s watershed anti-gay hate crimes.
Hailed as “one of the great amateur choruses of our time” (New York Today) for its “full-bodied sound and suppleness” (The New York Times), the 50-member Dessoff Choirs begins its 97thseason with the New York premiere of Considering Matthew Shepard by Craig Hella Johnson.
Conducted by Dessoff’s Music Director Malcolm J. Merriweather and co-directed by WQXR Radio’s Elliott Forrest (Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, producer, and director) and Rod Caspers, this 100-minute, three-part oratorio is a musical response to the tragic death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who has become an American icon and a symbol for hope and empowerment. This lightly-staged performance features The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra, Brooklyn College’s Conservatory Singers, soloists Matthew Cahill in the role of Matthew Shepard, soprano Tami Petty, and baritone Markel Reed.
On October 6, 1998, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, beaten, and left to die in what became an infamous act of brutality and one of America’s most notorious anti-gay hate crimes. He is the subject of Considering Matthew Shepard, Johnson’s evocative and compassionate first concert-length work. The choral composer channeled his own emotional response to Shepard’s death the only way he knew how — through music and words.
“In composing Considering Matthew Shepard I wanted to create, within a musical framework, a space for reflection, consideration and unity around his life and legacy,” explained Johnson.
Considering Matthew Shepard premiered in 2018 in Austin, Texas, performed by Johnson’s choral group Conspirare, and has subsequently toured nationally. It was broadcast on PBS and received a Grammy nomination for its 2016 recording (Harmonia Mundi). According to The Washington Post, “Considering Matthew Shepard demonstrates music’s capacity to encompass, transform and transcend tragedy. Powerfully cathartic, it leads us from horror and grief to a higher understanding of the human condition, enabling us to endure.”
Johnson set lyrics taken from Shepard’s personal journal, writings from his parents, newspaper reports, and a wide range of poetic and soulful texts by poets including Hildegard of Bingen, Lesléa Newman, Michael Dennis Browne, and Rumi.Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, helped Johnson research the piece. “Matt loved the theatre, films and music, and so it is fitting that a growing part of how he is honored and remembered is through the artistic achievements of those who, like myself, mourned his passage and refused to fully heal from the shock we all felt at his violent, needless death,” said Johnson. “The piece actually became a whole lot more than just the story of the suffering. It needed to become this larger invitation to return to love. And to return to remember who we are as human beings, in the deepest sense of our essence.”
Audiences describe the work as “brilliant,” “powerful,” “innovative,” “dazzling,” and “gripping.” The Bay Area Reporter wrote: “It has the richness, depth and complexity to compel repeated hearing, and the power to get you the first time out.” The Chicago Tribune hailed the piece, saying: “Listen to this music…and you’ll encounter the antithesis of despair and gloom. Yes, Considering Matthew Shepard conjures the horror of the crime, but through its synthesis of poetry, excerpts from Shepard’s journal and comments from his parents, the piece renders Shepard much more than just a victim: He’s a real-life, multidimensional person whose death led Johnson not only to lament what happened but to point toward a better path for humanity.”
In advance of the concert, Dessoff will air a pre-concert webinar in its Dessoff Dialogues series on Considering Matthew Shepard on October 28, 2021 at 7p.m. with host Malcolm J. Merriweather and guests Elliott Forrest, Rod Caspers and Cathy Renna. Check the Dessoff website at dessoff.org for registration information.
What: Dessoff Dialogue: Considering Mathew Shepard
When: October 28, 2021, 7:00-8:00 p.m.
Free – Registration required in advance.
About The Dessoff Choirs
The Dessoff Choirs, one of the leading choruses in New York City, is an independent chorus with an established reputation for pioneering performances of choral works from the Renaissance era through the 21st century. Since its founding in 1924, Dessoff’s concerts, professional collaborations, community outreach, and educational initiatives are dedicated to stimulating public interest in and appreciation of choral music as an art form that enhances the culture and life of our times. The Dessoff Choirs is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. Please visit dessoff.org for more information.
What: The Dessoff Choirs presents Considering Matthew Shepard
When: Saturday, November 6, 2021, 4:00-6:00 p.m.
Where: New York Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall, 2 West 64th Street, New York, NY, Train: A/B/C/D Columbus Circle
Tickets: $20-40 in Advance. To purchase, visit dessoff.org.