A CHOREOGRAPHIC WAR MOVIE
DANCE without spoken dialogue. Click HERE
TRUMP ELECTION CHANGES THE ROLE
OF ARTISTS IN AMERICA, says concert pianist Lara Downes. Click HERE
LET OUR CALENDAR
BRING YOU up to date. Click HERE
THIS IS A PASSION PLAY for our time. Composer Craig Hella Johnson, director of the acclaimed Conspirare Choir, felt so personally outraged and offended by the brutal, homophobic attack and murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in 1998 that he could only find release by embracing the example of JS Bach’s great passion oratorios. As this recording demonstrates, Johnson rose to that occasion magnificently. I was first made aware of this astonishing 100-minute work by John Koza, music director of the Camerata Singers of Monterey County. I just received the recent release of the two-CD album from Harmonia Mundi and, frankly, am blown away. I had previously heard and reviewed Conspirare’s work through choral settings by award-winning composer (locally well-known) Kevin Puts, but I had no idea that Johnson was such a fine composer in his own right.
You know that Johnson had Bach in mind when he begins and ends the work with the first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier. But after that reference, called Prologue, comes “Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass,” in an altogether American popular idiom that establishes the Wyoming world in which Shepard grew up, a tenderly imagined portrait of an “ordinary boy.”
Then begins the passion of Matthew Shepard, an agony perhaps more profound for humanity than that suffered by Shepard himself. It is the passion of Christ retold and as inexorable. And like Bach, it uses the choir to reflect on the unfolding events and solo voices to make those musings even more personal. While the music retains an American popular idiom it departs into moments of plainchant, of gospel, mostly meditative but with angry outbursts. At Shepard’s memorial, for example, Johnson represents in music and text a homophobic rant by a protesting cohort from a local Baptist church. (The band of eight musicians is led from the piano by the composer and includes strings, clarinet, percussion and electric guitars.) The guitars come to vivid life in the following scene, “Keep it away from me,” a torchy, bluesy song about “The Wound of Love.” Soon after, the text reminds us that “We are all sons of fathers and mothers” and wonders “Where has the innocence gone?”
Throughout the work, the narrator recounts the details of Shepard’s encounter with his murderers, the attack, the discovery of his comatose body tied to a fence along a remote highway, the attempts by paramedics to save him, his death a week later in a Colorado hospital and the conviction and sentences (two life terms each) of his killers, as read from newspaper accounts, just like the ‘evangelist’ reading the gospel texts Bach used in the Matthew and John passion settings. In compiling his libretto, Johnson wrote much of the text but also borrowed from classic and contemporary poetry. An Epilogue depicts a gathering together in thanks, and references elements in the Prologue. With a few strong solo voices, Koza and his Camerata Singers could, and should, enact a local production of this powerful oratorio.
UNIQUE MOSE ALLISON DIES AT 89
CALLED THE “William Falkner of jazz,” he last played Santa Cruz in 2010. Click HERE He was no less original as a blues singer and songwriter. Here is his Parchman Farm.
BLACK CEDAR TRIO in Aptos; MONTEREY SYMPHONY in Carmel. Click HERE
SISTER ACT in Carmel, NEXT TO NORMAL in Santa Cruz. Click HERE
Scott MacClelland, editor; Rebecca RC Brooks, associate editor