Dessoff presents NY premiere of Considering Matthew Shepard
by April Thibeault for Vocal Area Network
Posted October 22, 2021

Matthew ShepardHailed 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 97th season on November 6 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 part 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 Craig Hella Johnson (born 1962).

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.”

Dessoff offers Considering Matthew Shepard on Saturday, November 6, 2021 at 4:00 PM at the New York Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall, 2 West 64th Street. Tickets in advance are $20-$40 and are available at dessoff.org.

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. With repertoire ranging over a wide variety of eras and styles, Dessoff’s musical acumen and flexibility has been recognized with invitations from major orchestras for oratorios and orchestral works. Past performances include Britten’s War Requiem and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with Lorin Maazel in his final performances as Music Director with the New York Philharmonic. Over the course of its nearly 100-year history, Dessoff has presented many world premieres, including works by Virgil Thomson, George Perle, Paul Moravec and Ricky Ian Gordon; the first American performance in nearly 100 years of Montemezzi’s opera La Nave with Teatro Grattacielo; and the American premieres of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 5 and Sir John Tavener’s all-night vigil, The Veil of the Temple. Dessoff’s recent discography includes MARGARET BONDS: THE BALLAD OF THE BROWN KING AND SELECTED SONGS, a debut recording of Margaret Bonds’s crowning achievement, which was cited as a “Best Classical Recording of 2019” by WQXR-FM Radio; REFLECTIONS, featuring music by Convery, Corigliano, Moravec and Rorem; and GLORIES ON GLORIES, a collection of American song featuring composers from Billings to Ives. 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.

Conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather is Music Director of The Dessoff Choirs. An Associate Professor, he is Director of Choral Studies and Voice Department Coordinator at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the Artistic Director of “Voices of Haiti,” a 60-member children’s choir in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, operated by the Andrea Bocelli Foundation.  Merriweather is excited to resume in-person rehearsals and concerts. During the pandemic, Merriweather’s 2020-2021 season was enriched with guest lectures and virtual appearances around the world, most notably at Yale University and Columbia University. He has inaugurated a series of virtual events entitled “Dessoff Dialogues.” These conversations emphasize matters of social justice, equity and inclusion as they relate to classical music and the choral art.

April Thibeault handles public relations for The Dessoff Choirs.