Cantare Con Vivo Shine in Considering Matthew Shepard

Catriona Barr on March 2, 2020
Cantare Con Vivo performing Considering Matthew Shepard on Feb. 29, 2020

Twenty-two years after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, his story still shakes us to our core. The 21-year-old student was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die near the University of Wyoming in October 1998. In death, he has become an important figure in the LGBTQ movement, and has inspired films, novels, plays, and more recently, a choral work.

On Saturday, February 29, at Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, Cantare Con Vivo performed Considering Matthew Shepard under the direction of David Morales. The piece, which could be described as an oratorio, is an unstaged musical work that considers Matthew Shepard in life and death and what he has come to represent. The work, composed by Craig Hella Johnson — director of Austin choir Conspirare and formerly San Francisco’s Chanticleer — was a moving, thoughtful reflection.

Artistic Director David Morales

The work progressed from an introduction to Matthew’s life and upbringing in Wyoming, to the dreadful events and immediate aftermath of that October night, then onto its lasting significance. The music was as varied as the events, from the surprisingly uplifting “Ordinary Boy” to the men’s chorus opening to “The Fence (that night)” that was reminiscent of plainchant, to Mark Wilson’s stirring bass solo at the song’s fore, which personified the fence as a narrator of the events. The soulful and bluesy “Keep It Away From Me” followed; then “All of Us” marked a decisive shift with a joyful, gospel-inspired choir.

The piece was a massive undertaking for this group, which is a 100-member amateur chorus. Performed attacca between each song, there was no rest until the end of the two-hour concert. It required extreme coordination between the instrumentalists, soloists, and chorus, and they did a marvelous job. Nearly half of the chorus had individual roles as soloists or narrators, showing the depth of talent within the group. Particularly noteworthy were Yvonne Chu’s soulful voice in “Keep It Away From Me,” Rose Bollin-Loth’s rich soprano in “We Tell Each Other Stories,” and David Hofmayer’s touching and modest solo tenor in “The Innocence.”

Matthew Shepard

The group also shone as a whole, with a beautiful blend during a cappella sections, especially in the delicate end to “We Tell Each Other Stories.” The full power of the choir was further highlighted in “Meet Me Here,” offering an optimistic view forward of understanding and coming together. Cantare Con Vivo did an excellent job portraying the difficult, heartbreaking feelings wrapped inside this story. The piece itself beautifully pays homage to Matthew, at once recognizing his ordinariness, and that he could have been anyone, while acknowledging the massive effect his death has had. His mother, Judy Shepard, has become a prominent LGBTQ rights activist and was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” in 2009.

Shephard’s significance and legacy was underscored by his interment at Washington National Cathedral in 2018. Cantare Con Vivo’s performance of this work was a touching, beautiful, and thoughtful way to celebrate his life and consider his impact.

Composer Craig Hella Johnson | Credit: James Goulden