Conspirare Sings at Matthew Shepard Interment
Austin choral ensemble performed at National Cathedral service
By Robert Faires,
5:02PM, Fri. Oct. 26, 2018
Conspirare has garnered many honors through the years, but the one it received this week may be the greatest of all: singing at the service for Matthew Shepard as his ashes were interred at Washington National Catherdral. And the Austin choral ensemble responded by giving one of its most moving performances ever.
Of course, Conspirare has developed a deep connection to Matthew Shepard over the past few years. The life and death of this young man from Laramie, who was killed outside his hometown in 1998 for being gay, inspired Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson to compose the oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard, and over the last two years, Conspirare has released a 2-CD recording of it on the Harmonia Mundi label, filmed a performance of it which has been shown on PBS stations throughout the country, and toured it to communities across the U.S., including to Laramie, Wyoming just this month. So having the chorus be part of this service was fitting.
Equally fitting was the inclusion of selections from Considering Matthew Shepard, woven throughout the readings and hymns, the prayers and blessings. The score's blend of sacred and secular elements made it sound very much at home in a house of worship while adding the intimacy of a particular life in our time and our country. The rendition of "We Are All Sons," sung by the men of Conspirare and members of the Rock Creek Singers, was one of the first of many examples of this beautiful and tender fusion, a timeless expression informed by the specifics of Matthew Shepard's life. Context matters, and whatever was already moving about Johnson's work and Conspirare's performance of Considering Matthew Shepard was magnified because this was a service dedicated to him, with his parents and brothers present, with his earthly remains being interred.
Thankfully, the service was livestreamed, so those of us who couldn't be present could still experience this important and moving event. And it's still available online, so if you want to honor Matthew Shepard's life or are in need of a good cry, then seek it out. The exquisite exaltation of Johnson's "All of Us," begun by the angelic trinity of Mela Dailey, Stefanie Moore, and Fotina Naumenko, then lifted to the rafters by the full choir in gospel fervor, seeking "Out of heaven, rain/Rain to wash us free," may inspire applause in you as it did in those in the cathedral. Or you may feel calmed by the soft rocking of "Gently Rest (Deer Lullaby)." And there is a remarkable healing power in the back-to-back performances of Kathlene Ritch singing "Meet Me Here" from Considering Matthew Shepard and Charles Wesley Evans delivering the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River." One comes away from the service feeling cleansed. And considering the purpose of the event and the place and the moment, that is a great gift that Johnson and his company have provided, a blessing – and an achievement that surely surpasses any they've known to date.
If you've yet to experience the wonder of Conspirare in concert, it's worth noting their upcoming programs: the concert Bach Plus on Sat., Nov. 17, at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, and the beloved Conspirare Christmas program at the Long Center's Dell Hall on Mon., Dec. 10. And you can actually join with Conspirare in their next Big Sing!, in which everyone in the audience is able to – and encouraged to – sing. The next one is Tue., Oct. 30, 6pm, at the Austin Central Library, 710 W. Cesar Chavez. For more information, visit www.conspirare.org.