Montclair State University presented Considering Matthew Shepard in the regional premiere of the choral piece that explores the life, death and legacy of Matthew Shepard. The hate crime sparked outrage, and over the past two decades, has led to advocacy and action in the LGBTQ movement.
It is an evocative score, and Professor Heather Buchanan, director of choral activities, conducted on Sunday, December 8 with sensitivity, tuned to the wide swings of emotions – fear and anger, tolerance and forgiveness – as the choir sang the genre-blending story of the gay college student beaten and left to die, tied to a prairie fence.
In the three months 190 students have studied Considering Matthew Shepard, they have channeled the emotions the music elicits – both inside and outside this rehearsal space. “There’s a convergence of energy here,” says Sarah Peszka, a senior Music Education major from Philadelphia. “It’s turned everything upside down.”
The passions were on full display inside Alexander Kasser Theater on Montclair State’s campus, where the concert’s theme – #EraseHate has become an extraordinary community-wide movement, addressing, Buchanan says, “the permissible climate of hate that is disturbingly evident in the world today.”
Two performances were the semester finale to the John J. Cali School of Music “Signature Series.” The concerts were presented free to the community, supported by a generous grant from the Keating Crawford Foundation in memory of Beatrice Crawford, a Montclair musician who was the director of two choral groups, The Madrigals and The Choraliers.
Matthew Shepard’s story is a lasting symbol of the gay rights movement and has been shared with LGBTQ groups as part of the concert preparations at local high schools. Also being shared is curriculum on ways to introduce hate crime prevention. At Montclair State, a new campus organization, Musicians for Social Justice, hosted “friends-giving potluck” with students and faculty breaking bread to create a more inclusive, accepting world.
Tackling the musical composition has been difficult, students say, because of the conflicting emotions and points of view expressed. “For every piece, Dr. Buchanan prompts us to think about the message we are sharing,” says Isaiah Bridges-Green, a senior Voice Performance major from Brooklyn, New York.
The three-part oratorio incorporates poems, passages from Shepard’s journal, interviews with his parents and newspaper reports. “It is a memorial, a reflection on society, a celebration of diversity, and a fight against hate,” explains Demetria Sardo, a graduate student in Music Therapy from River Edge, New Jersey. “We may be capable of hate, but we are more importantly also capable of patience, understanding, love and growth.”
During rehearsal, Buchanan repeated a selection of text, “I leave the fence surrounded by beauty.” Then pausing, her words full of emotion, she shared what to her the composition reveals. “You want to forgive? You want people to forgive you? Forgive yourself. You want people to respect you? Respect yourself. That’s the whole point here.”
Composed by Craig Hella Johnson, chants, choral pieces, folk songs and solo pieces come together to tell Shepard’s story. “But while it visits some dark places, it triumphantly balances this with movements about comfort and hope,” Sardo says.
Buchanan collaborated with director Karen Driscoll and pianist Steven W. Ryan, both adjunct faculty at the John J. Cali School of Music. Driscoll staged the entire production and both Driscoll and Ryan coached the solo vocals and spoken recitations. The concerts’ multimedia visuals which were designed by Elliott Forrest for the original Conspirare performances with additions specific to the MSU performances.
The fence played a prominent role. In the semi-staged performance, “it becomes an icon, a scene of the crime, a shrine for Matthew’s memory, and ultimately nothing at all as it is taken down,” says Justin McBurney, a senior Music Education major from Bridgewater, New Jersey.
With forgiveness and compassion for one another, regardless of race, gender, orientation or religion, central to the narrative, Considering Matthew Shepard asked listeners to reflect on – to consider – their own lives and beliefs.
“A piece like this brings love and hope to many who may feel hopeless or helpless,” says Rebekah Kusher, a senior Vocal Performance major from Clifton, New Jersey.
“We all become confused, make mistakes and hurt others,” says Sardo. “There are parts of all of our hearts that we might not want to accept, things that we don’t want to see when we look at our reflections, and decisions that we regret making.”
“Only through love and unity can we instead erase hate,” Kusher says. “Only through love can we send the message that we are still here, we are still fighting and we will not be erased.”
That message, adds Buchanan, “will live long beyond these concerts.”