In rehearsal for Considering Matthew Shepard, tears well inside a Montclair State choral rehearsal room as singers explore the life, death and legacy of Matthew Shepard.
It is an evocative score, and Professor Heather Buchanan, director of choral activities, conducts with sensitivity, tuned to the wide swings of emotions – fear and anger, tolerance and forgiveness – as the choir sings the genre-blending story of the gay college student beaten and left to die, tied to a prairie fence.
“Tears are fine,” she tells the nearly 180 featured performers from the Montclair State Chorale and Singers ensembles. “Don’t try to stop them, breathe and sing through it.”
In the six months the 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.”
On Sunday, December 8, their passions will be displayed in the regional premiere of Considering Matthew Shepard. It’s being presented in a completely full Alexander Kasser Theater (the afternoon concert at 3 p.m. will be available live online).
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.”
This message has spilled out across 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.”
Fences are covered in notes of kindness, constructed by the student chapter of the American Choral Directors Association as reminders of the buck-rail fence in Laramie, Wyoming, where in 1998, Shepard was left to die. Shepard’s story is a lasting symbol of the gay rights movement and is being shared with LGBTQ groups 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.
“There’s real discussions on important issues that still exist in our world and encouragement to come together and fix those issues,” says Nick Scafuto, a sophomore Music Education major from Martinsville, New Jersey.
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.
Conducting an especially poignant selection, Buchanan repeats a selection of text, “I leave the fence surrounded by beauty.” Then pausing, her words full of emotion, she shares 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, says Sardo. “But while it visits some dark places, it triumphantly balances this with movements about comfort and hope.”
Buchanan has collaborated with director Karen Driscoll and pianist Steven W. Ryan, both adjunct faculty at the John J. Cali School of Music. Driscoll coaches the solo vocals and spoken recitation and has overseen the concerts’ multimedia visuals. The fence plays 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 asks 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.”
Considering Matthew Shepard is the semester finale to the John J. Cali School of Music “Signature Series.” The concert is a free public performance supported by a generous grant from the Keating Crawford Foundation. It is presented at Montclair State University in memory of Beatrice Crawford, a Montclair musician who was the director of two choral groups, The Madrigals and The Choraliers.
A film introduction has been created at the School of Communication and Media by Steve McCarthy, news producer, and Professor David Sanders. Cathy Renna, a longtime LGBTQ activist who works with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, will lead talkbacks after the performances.
Story by Marilyn Joyce Lehren