In the little-known world of the choral arts, The Providence Singers serve as a benchmark for southern New England. Headquartered in East Providence, this 80+ member ensemble has delivered countless impeccable performances over the last decade. Collaborations with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra have included full scale works such as Mahler’s 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Verdi’s Requiem, and annual performances of Handel’s Messiah. They have also performed classic works by Haydn, Brahms, Fauré, Duruflé, Orff, and have released a CD recording of Requiem for the Living by composer Dan Forrest.
For their spring concert on March 9, the Providence Singers will perform a large-scale fusion oratorio entitled Considering Matthew Shepard by composer Craig Hella Johnson.
The story of Matthew Shepard is tragic. It was 1998. Shepard was a young gay man attending college in Wyoming. He accepted a ride home from two men known to him and was subsequently robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead. Shepard died six days later, just shy of his 22 birthday. The case was highly publicized, and his killers were brought to justice.
In the wake of this horrific tragedy, there have been some positive developments. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, thereby providing sweeping legislation and federal funding to track and prosecute crimes driven by a victim’s race, color, religion, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, a non-profit organization, was founded to provide LBGTQ+ awareness training for law enforcement. Several works about Shepard’s life have been created, including books, news and documentary segments, a stage play, and this choral piece.
Though the Providence Singers are no stranger to large-scale performances and demanding musical requirements, this piece is a considerable undertaking and somewhat of a diversion from their usual concert offerings. Artistic Director Dr. Christine Noel explains:
“Part of our mission is performing mainstream choral and choral-orchestral works, as well as programming new music – but our new music still fits inside the classical idiom. Considering Matthew Shepard spans a wider range of musical styles including country and western, blues/jazz, pop, Gregorian chant, references to JS Bach, gospel, and Broadway – all within the framework of the western choral tradition.”
Dr. Noel first heard Considering Matthew Shepard performed at Harvard University with composer Craig Hella Johnson conducting the work. “I was immediately struck by the deep emotional impact of the work and the broad range of musical styles. More than any other piece I have conducted, the work’s universality invites us to reflect on our common ground.”
The piece features the core ensemble, vocal soloists and instrumentalists, and a few staged props – including the fence which is given a voice in this performance. There are also narrators reading statements from Shepard’s father, and content that appeared in the national media.
The concert will include a musical segment by the Rhode Island Gay Men’s Chorus. Several LBGTQ+ organizations will also participate, including PFLAG Greater Providence, Wanderground Lesbian Archive/Library, Newport Pride Center, Pride In Aging RI, and Youth Pride Inc.
“Drawing parallels to Bach’s passions, Considering Matthew Shepard challenges both performers and audiences to engage deeply with the narrative,” says Noel. “The piece encourages a profound exploration of personal culpability and redemption, compelling listeners to question ‘what harm might I unknowingly do to others in this life?’ This emotional journey also pushes us to recognize the divine in everyone.”
“This piece has been on my mind for a very long time, and it just felt like the right time to program this music as a means to elicit social change and to bring our community together […] We’re all going to come to this concert and to this music and text with different life experiences. While a profoundly moving work – devastating at times – the piece is also about love, finding the best in ourselves, and loving and accepting others. I hope the audience walks away with that.”
It is important to note that this work contains sensitive subject matter and is intended for mature audiences only. Parents may wish to review this subject matter before attending with minor children.
Considering Matthew Shepard will be performed Saturday, March 9, 2024, 7pm, at the Waterfire Arts Center in Providence. For more information and for tickets, visit providencesingers.org/considering-matthew-shepard.