Many of today’s college students probably have never heard the name Matthew Shepard before, but his story remains a critical turning point in the struggle for LGBT rights and hate crime legislation in America.
On March 17, the University of Georgia Hodgson Singers and Glee Clubs will bring Shepard’s story to life through song by performing “Considering Matthew Shepard.”
The choirs will perform under the conduction of Grammy award winner Craig Hella Johnson, who wrote the piece and first performed it with Conspirare, his professional choir.
Dr. Daniel Bara, Boyd UGA Foundation Professor of Choral Music and Director of Choral Activities, said the choirs are proud that Johnson chose to come to the university to perform the piece.
“We’re the second choir that isn’t one of his own choirs to perform it, so we feel good about that and in this part of the country it will be the premiere,” Bara said.
“Considering Matthew Shepard” recounts the events of Shepard’s life and tragic death. On Oct. 7, 1998, Shepard was attacked and tortured by two men and left to die.
The attackers targeted Shepard because he was gay, and the violence and horrifying nature of the crime brought national attention to hate crime legislation and inspired the passing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
Emily Carey, President of the UGA chapter of the American Choral Directors Association and a member of the Hodgson Singers, spoke about how the different musical styles within the piece help contribute to its relevance nearly 20 years after Shepard’s death.
“They call it a ‘fusion oratorio,’” Carey said. “It encapsulates multiple different styles of music, so it has a wide audience that it could bring in. I think that’s perfect considering its subject matter.”
Bara also spoke about the unique nature of the piece and its broad range of appeal.
“Here in the school of music, we’re preoccupied with classical music,” Bara said. “This is a piece that draws on classical musical style, but also on the styles of gospel, and popular music, and country music.”
The subject matter of “Considering Matthew Shepard” may seem dark and depressing, but Bara emphasized the hopeful tone of the work as a whole.
“This piece tells us the story of his beating and how the immediate community responded to it, but then asks greater questions like how do we deal with people that are different from us and how can we as a world embrace difference and recover from tragedy,” Bara said. “It ends up ultimately being a very uplifting piece.”
Carey spoke about the effect of the piece overall.
“I was really impressed with it the first time I listened to it, because despite the brutal story behind it, he still manages to make it a very hopeful piece that tries to bring everyone together, Carey said. “And to have love overcome hate in the end despite the tragedy that occurred.”
Bara said the wide-ranging styles within “Considering Matthew Shepard” have the potential to connect with almost everyone at the university.
“Because of the nature of the piece, I think if you’re a student or a faculty member that hasn’t come to the Hodgson Hall to see a school of music performance, this might be the piece to take a chance on,” Bara said. “I think it’s one that they’ll remember and they’ll be drawn to some aspect of it.”
The performance of "Considering Matthew Shepard" begins at 8 p.m. at Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall. Tickets are $6 for UGA students.