Montclair State Students Aim to #EraseHate in “Considering Matthew Shepard” Concert

Heather Buchanan conducts students as they rehearse “Considering Matthew Shepard.” (Photo by Mike Peters)

In 1988, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left for dead by his peers – because he was gay.

Thirty-one years later, Shepard’s legacy has lived on, inspiring a foundation and a federal hate crimes prevention act. Now, his legacy has come to Montclair.

Montclair State University students are using the arts to move the #EraseHate movement forward through their performance of Considering Matthew Shepard by composer Craig Hella Johnson for its annual Crawford Concert.

The performance, by 190 students from the John J. Cali School of Music’s Chorale and University Singers, will be the musical work’s New York City regional and New Jersey debut on Saturday, Dec. 7 and Sunday, Dec. 8.

Conductor Heather Buchanan. (Photo by Mike Peters)

When choosing repertoire for the Crawford Concert, Heather Buchanan, professor of Music and director of Choral Activities, applies three criteria: something written by a living composer so students can interact with them, something that’s artistically and musically challenging and something that addresses a social, culturally-relevant issue to encourage dialogue outside of the music.

So, when Buchanan first heard Considering Matthew Shepard, it was a no-brainer to bring it to MSU.

“I knew that people would love the piece… I just completely underestimated the response,” Buchanan said. “It would not be an exaggeration to say there’s been a tsunami of enthusiasm, even from students who are not voice majors.”

The performance is not a standard choir concert as it includes staged dramaturgy and kicks off with a four-minute documentary video produced by students from the School of Communications and Media.

Several student soloists appear in the performance. (Photo by Mike Peters.)

“I think the message really resonates,” Buchanan said. “We’re living in a world at the moment where this is a permissible climate of hate and students are concerned about the future and they need a way to positively address this, so doing these performances is giving them an opportunity to use their art to contribute something constructive to the conversation about how we move forward as a society and create a safer, more inclusive, accepting and tolerant world for everybody.”

Montclair resident Cathy Renna has worked with the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Shepard family for years. Ever since discovering that the oratorio was coming to Montclair, her two worlds have collided in an inspiring way. Renna has not only been actively involved in the production but will moderate a talkback after each performance.

Dancers are “holding” Matt as he is dying, symbolizing the fence which held him for 18 hours. Dancers include Harrison Smith,
Caitlin Walsh, Chase Fontenot and Maggie Likcani.

“It’s extremely powerful, I’m really looking forward to seeing how people react to it,” Renna said. “It’s the kind of performance where you can’t just get up and walk out of the theater… you want to talk about it and people have questions. I want people to walk out understanding that things are better, but that we still have a long way to go.”

The free concert will be presented at an open dress rehearsal on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. in at the University’s Kasser Theater. While the concert is already sold out, tickets are still available for Saturday’s open dress rehearsal. In addition, Sunday’s 3 p.m. performance will be live-streamed on YouTube here:

“The thing that’s making it the most special for me is my students and the way they’re responding and running with this material,” Buchanan said. “There is a commitment and level of engagement that is just extraordinary, and I think that says a lot of about their integrity and their vision for the future and that is after all, why we do these things.”

(Photo by Mike Peters)

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