‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ to have West Michigan premiere

The West Michigan premiere of Grammy-nominated "Considering Matthew Shepard" is coming to Holland and Grand Rapids on Feb. 25-26.

The musical program tells the story of the Wyoming college student whose killing in 1998 made national headlines and played a key role in the later expansion of federal hate-crime legislation. Shepard, 21, was lured from a bar by two men, tied to a split-rail fence and beaten unconscious because of his sexual orientation. 

The Holland concert, at Holland Armory on Sunday, Feb. 26, is sponsored by Gentex and is the centerpiece of the Holland Chorale’s season, “Love Can Build a Bridge.” The Grand Rapids concert will be at Park Church.

“It’s an important message because it's not beating people over the head with a two-by-four about gay rights,” says Patrick Coyle, artistic director of the Holland Chorale and choir director of Park Church. “It's about this individual who had all of this promise and potential, and in one fell swoop, the world was robbed of that. So, it's about something bigger.” 

Emotionally difficult

There was never any resistance to the idea of performing a piece that explores homophobia in a community that only passed protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in 2020 after a decade-long effort, Coyle says.

The Chorale’s artistic team was “fully supportive. And that group, at the time, included someone who was a minister at one of the more conservative congregations but who felt like we've really got to do this,” Coyle says. 

“The piece of music itself in some places is difficult to listen to. We talk about how you don't get to the light without darkness, you don't often get to joy without tragedy. And so you have to process that as a listener. You have to hear the story.” 

Coyle adds that the program invites the audience to listen with an open mind, which is the message from Matthew Shepard's parents.

“We have to know what happened but then move forward to have the perspective of what happened. How do we change that moving forward? And so that's a big emphasis of the piece. How do we be better? And how do we affect change?” Coyle says. 

Made debut in 2016

It’s the creation of composer Craig Hella Johnson, the Grammy-winning founder and artistic director of Conspirare, a virtuoso choir based in Austin, Texas, which premiered “Considering Matthew Shepard” in 2016. It features excerpts from Shepard's diary that will be read and sung during the concert, a "fusion oratorio blending traditional choral styles with folk, pop, and country." 

The music has been previously performed by the University of Michigan and this month by Northern Michigan University. 

The Chorale is partnering with Out On the Lakeshore for a talk-back following the performance led by the Rev. Jill Russell, Sara Van Tongeron, and D. L. McKinney.

Mike Pikaart, a singer and the Holland Chorale’s board vice-president, says the music is technically and emotionally challenging. 

“You have to deal with the fact there's a part where you are the crowd of protesters protesting the funeral, and, using words about people that I would not use,  and we will sing that. There's a part where we are in the heads of the murderers, and it’s hard to be in that space,” says Pikaart, who says the music is so emotionally powerful it might bring him to tears while performing it.

Pikart, 57, remembers the murder and the news coverage. He grew up in the West with the landscape of fields, big sky, horses and cows. Now as a chemistry professor at Hope College, he teaches students who are the same age Matthew Shepard was when he died.

‘Bigger lessons’

With all retelling of the story through music, the composer doesn’t mention that Shepard was gay or that was the reason he was killed, notes Jennie Reyes, Holland Chorale’s operations manager.

“He wrote it to emphasize Matthew's humanity and these bigger lessons of love and humanity and forgiveness,” Reyes says. “The piece allows you space to reflect on all people.” 

The Sunday, Feb. 26 concert will be held at the Holland Armory, 16 West 9th St., Holland. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for students 18 and over, and free for those under 18. Discounted tickets are offered for groups larger than 10. Call 616-494-0256 for more info. Use this link to purchase tickets.

The piece also will be performed the day before at Park Church, a historic church at 10 E. Park Place NE in Grand Rapids, on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 3:30 p.m. There is no charge to attend. A free will offering will be accepted. 

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