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Master Singers of Worcester present ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ 25 years since his death

By Richard Duckett, Worcester Magazine – 5/15/24

When Ed Tyler first looked at Craig Hella Johnson’s 2016 choral suite “Considering Matthew Shepard,” he knew right away he was getting involved with a work of greatness.

The composition is a heartfelt response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who was kidnapped, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die on the night of Oct. 6, 1998.

“I thought it was a brilliant. A brilliant work. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to be part of something that’s going to last. I really felt that this piece will have those kind of legs,” said Tyler, who was a soloist in performances of “Considering Matthew Shepard” in 2018 that were put on by Connecticut Choral Artists of Hartford in Stanford, Connecticut, Hartford, and Mechanics Hall in Worcester to mark the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death. They were the first performances of the choral suite presented by a group other than Johnson’s own Grammy Award-winning choir Conspirare, based in Austin, Texas.

Now in the 25th year since Shepard’s murder, Tyler will revisit the work as artistic director of the Master Singers of Worcester. The community chorus will perform selections from “Considering Matthew Shepard” at 7 p.m. May 17 at Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley and 7 p.m. May 18 at Salem Covenant Church in Worcester.

‘We can overcome this hatred’

Tyler said he thinks the work will still be discussed and performed 100 years from now.

The music ranges across lamentation Gregorian chant, country music, jazz riffs, gospel, contrapuntal chorales and emotive solos.  The texts include excerpts of Matthew’s own journals and love poetry across the centuries.

“It really is a late 20th-, early 21st-century marker. It’s very eclectic,” Tyler said of the music. “It gathers musical perspectives from as many sides as possible, reaching out as well as staying out of particular boundaries.”

Perhaps what is most memorable about the composition is that it is ultimately hopeful.

“Absolutely. The last two pieces (from the composition) we’re going to do are very uplifting. (The message is) we can overcome this hatred — with all of us,” Tyler said.

A message of love

In a review of the 2018 performance by Connecticut Choral Artists of Hartford at Mechanics Hall for the Telegram & Gazette, John Zeugner noted that “in several YouTube offerings (Craig Hella) Johnson has said he felt Matthew Shepard communed with him in this composition.

Their aim, he said, had always been to change audience attitudes, to spawn new souls of tolerance and love. As the chorus had shouted toward the end: ‘Only in love’ can such miracles happen.” The concert was conducted by Chris Shepard (no relation), who is also the artistic director of Music Worcester. The audience at the end stood cheering, Zeugner said.

The message reflects the vision of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which the Master Singers of Worcester includes on its website, “to amplify the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people.  Through local, regional and national outreach, we empower individuals to find their voice to create change and challenge communities to identify and address hate that lives without our schools, neighborhoods and homes.

Also in that spirit, several community organizations will be at the Master Singers of Worcester performances and have tables in the lobbies of the concert venues. They include LGBT Asylum Task ForceSafe Homes MALove Your Labels, Pathways for ChangeLUK Inc. and Translate Gender.

People make connections by meeting people and “become part of a larger group,” Tyler said. “It may sound naive, but I think that is they way of solving these issues.”

‘Very outside of their comfort zone’

The Master Singers of Worcester performances of “Considering Matthew Shepard” will run for about 75 minutes with no intermission. The full-length work is almost 110 minutes with nearly 300 pages of music.

Tyler said he shortened the performances a little as a more manageable work to take in for the audiences and the singers in rehearsals. Even so, the piece will be extremely challenging to perform with all its different styles and emotions. The singers have performed shorter excerpts of the work at concerts over the past two years as a way of getting ready for May 17 and 18, he said. The performances will have 42 singers accompanied by an eight-piece instrumental ensemble.

“When I told them my thoughts about wanting to do this there was a lot of excitement,” Tyler said. Even though it was “very outside of their comfort zone … they’re doing a fantastic job.”

With all the work, Tyler wanted the singers to savor the experience, so he scheduled two performances with a visit for the first time to Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley in addition to the performance at the Master Singers of Worcester’s regular home venue at Salem Covenant Church.

“I wanted to get a second performance out of it rather than a one-and-done. I really want singers to experience it. There’s a lot of work the singer has to do. It would be kind of a shame just to do it once,” Tyler said.

Working together

Tyler, who lives in Shrewsbury, is in his seventh year as artistic director of the Master Singers of Worcester, a professionally directed, volunteer-administer­ed community chorus that was founded in 1976. “I’ve had a really good time. It’s been a really fun ride. I enjoy working with the group,” he said.

The Master Singers of Worcester will be part of the Worcester Bach Collective as the Complete Bach Project makes its cultural mark in Worcester over the next 11 years.

Tyler served as director of choral music and drama at Manchester High School in Manchester, Connecticut, for 33 years until retiring. He has taught music theory and ear training at the University of Connecticut and conducted the University Chorale at Central Connecticut State University. A professional vocalist, he has been a freelance soloist. He is also a composer of choral music with more than 60 titles to his name, and has written two music textbooks.

Attendance at Master Singers of Worcester concerts took a dip following the pandemic but recently there has “been a nice uptick,” he said. “I think we’re on an upswing,” something he also sees with other live, in-person performing groups.

“I think it’s so important for people to experience and see art live. The experience of live performance cannot be matched in any digital format. I’m hoping these ones (performances of ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’) will go even further to building our audience,” Tyler said.

Selections from ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ — Master Singers of Worcester

When/Where: 7 p.m. May 17, Wesley United Methodist Church, 98 North Maple St., Hadley; 7 p.m. May 18, Salem Covenant Church, 215 East Mountain St., Worcester

How much: Tickets in advance: $25; $20 senior/student. Tickets at the door: $30; adult, $25 senior/student.