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by Paul Neeson
posted 21/02/2020

Review: Considering Matthew Shepard

Sydney Philharmonia VOX Choir – City Recital Hall, Angel Place. 20 February

Reviewed by Paul Neeson

VOX perform Considering Matthew Shepard. Photo by Robert Catto

In October 1998 a young man, Matthew Shepard, was tied to a fence and beaten to death just because he was gay. He was found the next day alone, limp, covered in blood and barely breathing. Curiously he was watched over through the night by a large female deer, a doe, as though protecting him, ushering him to the next world, a silent vigil, a devoted and sorry witness to his departing soul.

Matthew Shepard

There was a huge outpouring of grief and outrage in response to his murder. It also inspired an incredible wealth of artistic creation, including documentary and narrative films and television shows, stage plays as well as musical and written works. Musicians such as Tori Amos, Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, Cyndi Lauper, Peter Paul & Mary and Lady Gaga have all paid tribute to the life and suffering of this young man.

American composer Craig Hella Johnson joined that list when he composed the oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard in 2016.

VOX is the Sydney Philharmonia’s Choir for young adults (18-30). Many members are the same age as Matthew at the time of his death. Their performance of the oratorio at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place last night was an incredibly emotional and moving experience, often overpowering in its depth of grief and struggle to comprehend the senseless violence.

The music is bookended with references to JS Bach’s Prelude no.1 which foreshadows the form of Hella’s setting of the story like one of Bach’s Passions. There are also many allusions to popular idioms of music that Matthew would have been familiar with in Laramie – blues, country ballad in waltz time, negro spirituals and folk music. The simple orchestration of string quartet, clarinet, piano, percussion and vibes evokes the film scores of Miles Goodman or Jerry Goldsmith. All this brilliantly conducted by Elizabeth Scott.

Director Shaun Rennie, who is about to direct the Australian Premier of Amelie the Musical for the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, created a compelling atmosphere with minimal theatricality. The simple use of risers and basic movements throughout the entire space (balconies and aisles included) gave the sense of scene changes. Couple that with the brilliant lighting design (with candles and small lights on the choir’s scores) by Trent Suidgeest and we felt like we were witnesses to the events as they unfolded. The heavy smoke throughout added to the illusion of the lonely windswept Wyoming plain, and later the soul rising in to the heavens.

Sydney Philharmonia VOX Choir

But the VOX Choir stole the show. These young singers showed the experience and musicality of seasoned professionals. The choral singing was exceptional with balance and harmonies that often brought you to tears. The many soloists were well chosen to propel the narrative, handling the diverse stylistic challenges with aplomb. 

Craig Hella Johnson has taken the horror of this violent story and transformed it into a musical masterpiece that offers hope, beauty and truth. VOX certainly did justice to not only his composition but also to the creative cannon that now surrounds this tragic tale.

As this performance was part of the Mardi Gras Festival, there were many rainbow themed outfits dotted throughout the audience. It was a very appreciative crowd and the standing ovation went on for some time until the choir had to leave the stage. It was recorded by the ABC and has been scheduled for broadcast on Friday 28 February at 8pm. This was the first time the work has been performed in Sydney and given the incredible reaction let’s hope it isn’t too long before we see it again.

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