Leon Klinghoffer, Simon Weil, the Little Match Girl... the list of surrogate Lambs of God remembered in contemporary musical treatments of the Passion keeps growing--along, alas, with the list of candidates. Trayvon Martin, anyone? Philando Castile? Little Alan Kurdi, all of three years old, face down on a Turkish beach? The Orlando 49? Considering Matthew Shepard, Craig Hella Johnson's new oratorio, for chamber orchestra, chorus, and soloists, commemorates the gay University of Wyoming freshman beaten insensate and lashed to a wood buck fence outside the town of Laramie on the night of October 6, 1998.
It feels like only yesterday. The facts of the crime—widely reported, and traced with exquisite care in Moisés Kaufman's well-traveled docudrama The Laramie Project—have lost none of their power to horrify, but horror is not on Johnson's agenda. Instead, he aims to memorialize without mourning, to dispel the nightmare without enduring it first. As his opening gambit, he appropriates the C major prelude from Book 1 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the scaffold over which Gounod draped his velvety "Ave Maria." Starting from this place of serenity, Johnson really has nowhere to go.
At nearly two interminable hours, his score subsumes a salad of historical styles from chant to blues by way of cowboy songs into a flow that in the writing and in the execution is relentlessly soothing, mellow, chilled-out, and sincere. Though acoustic, the instrumentals by the excellent eight-piece chamber ensemble sound hazy and synthesized. Strictly speaking, the labels Easy Listening and New Age may not apply, but that's the vibe, flooding the mind with sweetness and vigil candlelight.
The eclectic text stitches together journal entries of Shepard's with statements from his parents and the composer, as well as poetry few will recognize by Lesléa Newman, Hafiz, Hildegard von Bingen, and Michael Dennis Browne. Flat, expository passages in the style of a news report are spoken more in sorrow or even denial than in anger.
The temperature rises slightly in the demonstrations at Shepard's funeral and the trials of his killers, nervously underscored by the light pulse of a drum. The interjections "Kreuzige, kreuzige!" (repeated in English as "Crucify, crucify!") are lifted from Bach's St. John Passion. How apt is the allusion? At this point in the proceedings, not very, but what mostly torpedoes the passage is the aura of tea at the vicarage. "A boy who takes a boy to bed?" the protesters murmur. "Where I come from that's not polite."
Johnson is hardly the first to morph Matt Shepard into a Christ figure. At first the U.W. freshman who fell off his bike and found Matt on the fence mistook the dying body for a scarecrow, not so far from the picture of crucifixion the assailants almost certainly had in mind. Until the fence came down, compassionate folk from far and near flocked to it like pilgrims, gathering splinters like relics of the cross.
Absent the enactment and enforcement of stronger protections against hate crimes, the canonization undertaken in Considering Matthew Shepard may strike more listeners than me as ritual nobly intended but futile, smothering us with comforts for fear of inflicting pain. That said, the performance is above reproach. Johnson's Austin-based choral ensemble goes by the Latin name Conspirare ("to breathe together"), styling itself "a company of voices." No question about it: the artists maintain the uncompromising standards of intonation, clarity, and transparency they must be aiming for. Among them, I would single out the alto Laura Mercado-Wright, who shines in "Keep it Away From Me," a more distinctive track than most.