Harmonia Mundi's Requiem for Matthew Shepard

Eighteen years after 21-year old Matthew Shepard was robbed and beaten by two men who lured him to their truck, tied him to a fence in a field outside Laramie, WY, and left him to die, Harmonia Mundi has released a two-hybrid SACD set of Craig Hella Johnson's touching requiem, Considering Matthew Shepard. Johnson's sweet tribute, an apt reminder of the consequences of homophobia, is lovingly performed by Johnson's excellent, Grammy-winning Austin-based choir, Conspirare, and an occasionally augmented group of eight acoustic instrumentalists.

Considering Matthew Shepard was superbly recorded and edited by Brad Michel. The collector-quality album, which has been nominated for a Grammy for "Best Surround Recording," was beautifully produced by the famed Robina G. Young, and features lovely illustrations, graphics and layout by Karin Elsener and Michael J. Sklansky. That Harmonia Mundi lavished the music with one of its increasingly rare hi-rez releases shows how much they value the work.

There is a strong, and deeply resonant spiritual core to the work. We hear it immediately, with the excerpt from J.S. Bach's Prelude in C (The Well-Tempered Clavier), which Gounod memorialized in his "Ave Maria." At various places in the work, between poetry and text by Johnson, Sue Wallis, Judy Shepard (Mother of Matthew), Lesléa Newman (author of Heather Has Two Mommies and the keynote speaker at the University of Wyoming's Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, and Transgender Association event that Shepard attended right before he was kidnapped), and Michel Dennis Browne, we hear settings of words by Hildegard von Bingen, Rumi, William Blake, Rabindranath Tagore, Hafiz, as well as from the Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions.

There are, of course, many ways that Johnson could have memorialized Shepard's death. One route, for example, would have been to alternate gentle, lyrical sections—some of heart-searing intensity—with others of anger and rage. (Think the "Dies Irae" section of Verdi's Requiem, which certainly qualifies as a spiritual work.) He certainly didn't have to rail at God or invoke eternal vengeance, but he could have decried unjust laws, heartless hatred, machismo, and ignorance.

Instead, Johnson made the gentlest of choices, with mostly slow tempo, sweet ballads punctuated by occasional recitations of the facts surrounding Shepard's murder. Some of his music is especially lovely. The chorus "Gently Rest (Deer Lullaby)," for example, is so beautiful that it deserves multiple performances on its own. The movement's inspiration derives from the report by Sheriff's Deputy Reggie Fluty that, as she ran to the fence on which Shepard was tied, she saw a large doe lying near him, as if it had been keeping him company all through the night. If that doesn't get you, nothing will.

The closest we get to righteous anger is in the 31st section of the 33-part, 106:26 work. There, we encounter Johnson's setting of W.S. Merwin's "Thanks." Written in 1988, the poem cites muggings, funerals, news of the dead, wars, police at the door, beating, banks, "the faces of the officials and the rich and all who will never change," animals dying around us, and "forests falling faster than the minutes." But Merwin and Johnson's response is not to rail, but rather to say "thanks" over and over again in music that barely hints at the gravity of the situation.

Such an approach is, of course, spiritually rooted. It does not, however, for make for much variation in a work that lasts as long as Considering Matthew Shepard. There are many fine sections, including when the exceptionally innocent soprano voice of Stefanie Moore touches the heart. And there are a few more lively selections, as when Laura Mercado-Wright sings "Keep it Away From Me (The Wound of Love)" in a cabaret-perfect, rockabilly/bluesy ballad arrangement backed by electric guitar and bass, Matt Albers sings the James Taylor-like ballad "The Innocence," and, in the Epilogue, either Kathlene Ritch or Keely J. Rhodes gets down in a mildly gospel-like setting of Johnson's "Meet Me Here."

Other times, however, sweetness crosses over to saccharine. Thann Scoggin's reading of Shepard's father's recitation to the court is overdone, and the ensuing music excessively slow and weepy. There are times when we venture into Hallmark card territory. By the time I had reached section 28, "The Fence (after/The Wind)," I skipped ahead a track, unable to take one more section of "same." Thankfully, the next mournful section "Pilgrimage," which includes Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Christian quotations, had some lovely instrumental effects.

While I remain unconvinced that Johnson's approach fully addresses the many facets of Shepard's death, I highly recommend Craig Hella Johnson's Considering Matthew Shepard. It is a work of considerable beauty, and one that invites deep reflection.

Allen Fant's picture

Thank You for sharing- JVS.
I will add this one to my list.
Happy Holidays & Season's Greetings

cgh's picture

I can't believe that was 16 years ago. How far we have and haven't come. On a lighter note, this also makes me feel old.

cgh's picture

Wait, 18 years later. 1976-1998. I knew Shepard and I were born the same year.

John Atkinson's picture
cgh wrote:
Wait, 18 years later.

Thanks for the correction. I have amended the text.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Did I really blow it on the math? What a blow to someone who once had a National Science Foundation scholarship in math. Thanks for the catch, cgh.

tonykaz's picture

We're living within the Long Shadow of Hitler's Pink Triangle Pogrom. I'm worried about what those "Trump" Shirts I saw during the Election run-up. Can it happen here?

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Frank Zappa asked that question, in a sense. And yes, it can happen here if the people allow the concept that the social 'pendelum' can swing wildly to the left and right, as though that represents some kind of balance. Balance can be many things, but it must always begin with the best of our ideals - respect for each individual person as they are. Demand that of your leaders.

John Atkinson's picture
dalethorn wrote:
it must always begin with the best of our ideals - respect for each individual person as they are.

It should be taken as read that all are welcome at Stereophile. Regardless of race, age, religion, sex, gender identification, sexual preference, political inclination, we are all united in our love of music.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile