UGA School of Music hosts composer, conductor for performance of Grammy-nominated work

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Craig Hella Johnson

The Hugh Hodgson School of Music will host Grammy-winning composer and conductor Craig Hella Johnson as student vocalists and instrumentalists, including the University of Georgia (UGA) Hodgson Singers and Glee Clubs, become the third ensemble ever to perform the powerful, Grammy-nominated “Considering Matthew Shepard” on Friday, March 17, at 8 p.m.

The Hodgson School’s connection to the work began with assistant director of choral activities J.D. Burnett, who was called in to sub for another singer in Johnson’s professional choir Conspirare. The performance would be the premiere of “Considering Matthew Shepard.”

“I was so taken with the piece, which we presented in Austin and Los Angeles and then recorded for [independent record label] Harmonia Mundi, that I broached the subject of a possible performance at UGA,” said Burnett.

Burnett’s enthusiasm quickly convinced Dan Bara, director of choral activities at the School of Music, and Johnson, too, came on board with the idea of bringing the work and its composer to the Classic City.

The passion/oratorio-like work, written in 2016, chronicles the tragic story of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who, in 1998, died after being attacked, tortured, tied to a fence and left for dead.

“Matt Shepard and his story have led me on an inspiring, challenging and deeply meaningful journey that I continue to this day,” Johnson wrote of the work. “In composing ‘Considering Matthew Shepard,’ I wanted to create, within a musical framework, a space for reflection, consideration and unity around his life and legacy.”

“Considering Matthew Shepard” employs a variety of musical styles, including chant, folk tunes, country and western, classical sacred choral, and gospel to tell the story.

“I find the piece to be of exceptional cohesiveness despite its rather varied nature in terms of musical style,” said Burnett. 

Burnett notes that the variety of styles also serve the purpose of differentiating the many viewpoints—“Matthew’s, his parents’ , the fence’s, a deer’s, an angry crowd’s”—used to convey the narrative.

And though the subject matter is dark, Johnson’s framing of the story creates a purposeful whole from the unsettling particulars.

“Much like Bach did in his passion settings, Craig rather takes care of the listener who is being presented with a troubling story,” said Burnett. “The work confronts the harsh reality of the truth, but the thread of the piece ends in a place of hope, encouragement, and love—for it is in these that we might somehow prevent future brutality like Matthew Shepard experienced.”

Educators and students alike developed an easy affinity with the work—according to Burnett, “Craig’s music finds its way deep into us as listeners and singers”—and are all eagerly preparing for the performances: one in Athens, another in the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta on Sunday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m.

“I find the work incredibly touching in many ways, and the singers at UGA seem very excited to welcome Craig here, and they are very much taken with the piece from what I’m able to tell,” said Burnett. “I can’t wait for them to experience this piece under Craig’s leadership, and for them to interact with him musically while he’s here.”

Tickets to the concert are $20 each or $6 with a UGA student ID and can be purchased at pac.uga.edu or the PAC box office.

The UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music sponsors more than 350 performances each year. To view the performance calendar, subscribe to the weekly email concert listing, and to learn more about the School of Music, go to music.uga.edu.