A lone spotlight illuminates Craig Hella Johnson at the piano, who glances at his ensemble before launching into the opening of Bach’s Prelude in C Major. The familiar piece then smoothly transitions into the first ensemble song, “Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass,” as the projectors light up with a video of tall grass swaying gently in the wind. The slides change with the tone of the piece, lights illuminating then darkening the stage.
Grammy-winning choir ensemble Conspirare visited Andover this past week. During its stay on campus, the group taught master classes, performed at All-School Meeting, and presented a concert in Cochran Chapel on Wednesday evening. The work performed was “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a choral piece composed and conducted by Johnson.
“Considering Matthew Shepard” tells the true story of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was murdered in a hate crime because of his homosexuality. Conspirare delivers an sentimental and intimate tribute to Shepard through music.
Audience member Tyler Wei ’21 said, “I thought [the performance] was very emotional. This is the first official choral concert I’ve gone to, and I never expected to be emotionally hit the way I was. Some of the songs were on touchy subjects such as religion, sexuality, and identity, and I think that throughout all the songs — even though they were about touchy subjects — they sang them in such a way that impacted you.”
According to Johnson, the impact Shepard’s story left on him led to the eventual inspiration for the piece.
“It took a big event and a big story. I was very pierced by the story of Matthew Shepard… and I felt that I wanted to respond in such a way that it took a long time before I felt ready. And once I started, I really wanted this to be a memorial. We create art sometimes because we want to remember. I wanted you to know who Matthew was and I wanted us to both learn from his death but also from his life. It was one of things in life that just kind of chose me and I couldn’t escape wanting to respond,” said Johnson in a Q&A period after the concert.
Chloe Choi ’19, another audience member, said, “Seeing [the ensemble interpret the story] into some sort of musicality was a really cool experience for me, since I normally don’t do that as a classical musician. Watching people turn real-life events into beautiful music and hearing the result of that musicality was eye-opening.”
Johnson’s project included singing, recitations, lights, props, and acting, which allowed for the ensemble to tell the story of Matthew Shepard in both direct and subtle ways.
According to Johnson, an integral theme of the work is gratitude and hope, as seen in several of the songs, and especially the closing movement, “Thank You.”
“With all these things, we say thank you. Over and over again. We say ‘thank you’ the way they direct our lives, so he’s the doing the same thing… I still believe in the flame of love in our lives, and I still believe that we could hope together, and I still believe in the revolution. If all of us chose that, we can absolutely change the world… if we’re willing to dream. We say ‘How can we be dreaming?’ in the big movement at the end,” said Johnson.
In addition to the vocal ensemble and piano, Conspirare also employs a violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, clarinet, and percussion as accompaniments. All instrumental music was provided by the musicians of the group.