Q & A: Soprano Melissa Givens on Considering Matthew Shepard

Considering Matthew Shepard is a contemporary oratorio written by Craig Hella Johnson, founder and director of the acclaimed choral group, Conspirare. The work is a powerful and moving artistic response to the death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in October 1998.

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of this tragic event, WDAV will feature Considering Matthew Shepard in its entirety on Sunday, October 7 at 6 p.m.

We’ve also spoken with soprano Melissa Givens, one of the singers featured in the memorable work. Givens currently serves on the voice faculty of Pomona College in Claremont, California. A Davidson College graduate, Givens has been involved with the project since the beginning and is traveling nationally to present the work in performance.

Melissa Givens
Melissa Givens

What has it been like to be a part of this monumental project?

It has been an amazing, touching, soul-opening experience. Each time we sing Considering Matthew Shepard (CMS) is another opportunity to introduce people to Matt and to gain new insight into this brilliantly written piece of music.

Composer Craig Hella Johnson has said that the voices of Conspirare were in his mind as he was writing this oratorio. Describe the process of learning, rehearsing, performing and recording the work.

We first prepared CMS for Conspirare’s 2014 ComPassion Festival. At that point, all that existed was a portion of the Passion section. Even then, we could tell what an affecting work it would be. Our first read-through was incredibly emotional. Between Matt’s story, the texts, the music, and just the pride we felt for the accomplishment of our friend and colleague, the tears flowed freely.

Later, with the completed score in hand, it was a joy to see how Craig structured the finished work. It mirrored the collage form of the Carillon concerts for which he is known; drawing disparate styles of music together into a glorious whole. He wrote to our strengths, making the learning process both challenging and familiar at the same time.

It was exciting to see CMS come together as the rehearsal process continued. To hear the orchestrations the first time our instrumental colleagues joined us. To see the audience reactions in the first dress rehearsals and the premiere in Austin.

The culmination of the birthing process was the recording sessions at Goshen College. Fortunately, those familiar surroundings mitigated any nerves we had about getting the recording right— both for Craig and for Matt.

What are the highlights for you, specifically, as a soloist with the ensemble?

Lesléa Newman wrote a beautiful book of poems about Matt’s death, October Mourning. Craig used some of the sections written in the voice of the fence in CMS. I am one of the three singers who portray the fence in arias. Besides singing beautifully written music, it is rewarding to be entrusted with one of the many emotionally laden moments of the evening.

You’ve been traveling with the ensemble presenting a national tour of Considering Matthew Shepard. How has the work been received at these programs?

The audience response has been universally positive. We can always hear sniffling throughout the evening, so we know that some audience members are connecting to it emotionally. Occasionally an audience will be moved to complete silence at the end and it will take a moment before the applause begins. But when it does, it is always generous and sustained. People will stop us to talk after the show to tell us how moved they were, or to tell us how grateful they are that this work exists.

As a follow up, how are you feeling about the upcoming performance of the oratorio in Laramie this October?

I expect that it will be very special, very difficult, and incredibly moving to honor Matt in that way in that place.

Why is a piece like this important and even essential in helping to remember Matthew Shepard and his story?

Matt was an ordinary boy murdered by hate. That fact alone is enough reason why he should be remembered. But we’re also in a time when hate has been weaponized, so an antidote is needed. The music of Considering Matthew Shepherd not only memorializes a murdered boy, but celebrates him—and reminds us all that love is the answer; that loving one another is how we save the world.

This article was originally published on October 2, 2018. To learn more about the Charlotte Master Chorale’s performance of “Considering Matthew Shepard” listen to our interview with Craig Hella Johnson or visit their website here.

The Only Composer Everybody Loved

By Lawrence Toppman

Technically, not everybody: The young Berlioz, who responded to revolutionary fire in composers and revered Beethoven as God, didn’t have much use as a young man for Mozart. When he got older, he recanted harsh words and became a qualified admirer.

Haydn called Mozart the greatest composer he knew, personally or by reputation. Beethoven, who played his 20th and 24th piano concertos, doubted he’d write anything as beautiful as the latter and created piano and cello variations on arias from “The Magic Flute.”

Chopin acknowledged WAM’s piano influence in such pieces as the forward-looking Adagio in B minor. At his first Paris concert, he played his own Piano Concerto No. 2 and Variations on “La ci darem la mano” from “Don Giovanni.” He asked that Mozart’s Requiem be played at his funeral; it was, for a reported 3,000 mourners.

From Rossini:

“Beethoven I take twice a week, Haydn four times, Mozart every day.”

From Brahms:

“If we cannot write with the beauty of Mozart, let us at least try to write with his purity.”

From Wagner, who had few kind words for other composers:

“The most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts.”

Tchaikovsky not only wrote an orchestral suite on WAM’s themes (his fourth, “Mozartiana”) but praised him above all composers: “Mozart is the musical Christ.” Or, less fulsomely, “Mozart is the culminating point beauty has attained in the sphere of music.” Even Stravinsky, the most important composer of the 20th century, studied Mozart’s counterpoint while moving into his neoclassical period.

Plenty of composers have achieved universal respect, at least after their deaths: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and, closer to our time, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Some give great enjoyment while being ranked in the second tier as creators: Dvorak, Copland, Puccini, Saint-Saens.

Yet Mozart shows up simultaneously on the largest number of “admire” and “love” lists among fans, particularly among composers. Leonard Bernstein offers the best explanation I know: “It is hard to think of another composer who so perfectly marries form and passion. Mozart combines serenity, melancholy and tragic intensity into one great lyric improvisation. Over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s: the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering – a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.”

What IS a genius, anyway?

By Lawrence Toppman

An interviewer once described Jimmy Page as a genius. “Mozart was a genius,” he replied. “I’m a guitar player.” (A great one in his style, as this live recording of Led Zeppelin proves. You’ve gotta admire anyone who plays electric guitar with a violin bow.)

But what defines a genius? First, he or she must be creative, rather than recreative. I don’t think an interpreter can be anything but a re-creator. As amazing as Horowitz or Heifetz or Toscanini were on their best days, they weren’t geniuses.

Sometimes a performer or conductor gives us a new experience by wrenching a piece out of recognizable shape, as Leonard Bernstein did in his final recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Whatever the results may be, that’s not really a creative act.

On the other hand, I would call Bernstein a genius if he had never waved a baton or sat down at a keyboard. No other composer flowed back and forth as deftly from concert hall to stage to screen, and he wrote masterworks in each area.

Of course, there has to be more to genius than simply making art, however prolifically or diversely. Hollywood studio directors of the 1930s and 1940s belched out movies at the rate of two or three a year in multiple genres, but few rose above mediocrity.

The definition also goes beyond skill. Georg Philipp Telemann wrote more than 800 pieces. His viola concerto, “Don Quixote” suite and some other works (especially orchestral compositions where he mimics animals) make me smile, but even the ones that put me to sleep – pretty much all of the rest — show impeccable craftsmanship.

I think a genius has to make us understand art itself in a different way. That doesn’t mean we need to admire the result: I consider Andy Warhol a genius as the most seminal figure in Pop Art, though I seldom take to his paintings or prints. Jimmy Page expanded the possibilities for nimble rock guitarists but didn’t redefine the form. Mozart made us think differently about what classical music could be, whether giving shape to the modern piano concerto, composing for a clarinet with an extended range or creating ensembles in operas where each character sings a different line yet can be understood. That’s the difference between a terrific musician and a genius.

Mozart good enough to eat

By Lawrence Toppman

I tasted my first Mozartkugel in college, when an Austrian exchange student passed a box around. I couldn’t have said what was in them – apparently, pistachio marzipan and nougat covered with dark chocolate — but I remember scarfing them down greedily. I neither knew nor cared who Mozart was, because I hadn’t yet had my first music appreciation course. He was just a guy whose beaky-nosed profile graced an imported candy.

Fans of these sugar balls can go to here to learn more. My three favorite factoids are these:

1)  Salzburg confectioner Paul Fürst invented them in 1890, and his descendants still make them by hand. At least eight other candy makers have created copies of various kinds, but by industrial processes. An imported 7.7-ounce Reber Mozart Specialties Gift Box ($37 via Amazon) contains chocolates of various flavors and shapes, including something described as “Mozart pie.”

2) Copyright entanglements resulted in rulings as to which could be round and which must have flat sides, which could have “Real” in their names, and which had to be designated Mozart-kugeln (with a hyphen) instead of Mozartkugeln.

3) Salzburg artists built 80 polyester Mozartkugeln, each five feet across, and put them in the city’s old town in 2006. One cannot have beauty without stupidity, alas, and vandals caused 7,000 euros worth of damage by unbolting one and rolling it into the street.

Assorted Mozartkugeln
Assorted Mozartkugeln

Aside from making my mouth water, this contemplation of Mozart Spheres (that’s one meaning of “kugel” in German) has made me wonder, “Why Mozart?”

He’s not the world’s most beloved classical composer: That would probably be Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and you never see Beethoven Balls or Tchaikovsky Treats. Nor does one encounter Bach Rocks, Schubert Sugarsnacks or Brahms Bombs. (I would buy one of those sight unseen.)

Yes, a Salzburg confectioner named his product for the most famous celebrity from his home town – really the only one, unless we count physicist Christian Doppler, and Doppler Dream Bars probably wouldn’t sell as well. But nobody else, as far as I know, has named a candy for a composer.

I think it’s because Mozart epitomizes the spirit of joy in his buoyant symphonies, vivacious concertos and witty comic operas. Whether absorbed by ears or mouth, he and his candy are linked because they provide unfailing pleasure.

Pictured: Fürst Original Mozartkugeln; CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Concertos Mozart Never Wrote

By Lawrence Toppman

I don’t mean disputed or spurious pieces attributed to him, such as the Adélaïde Concerto. French violinist Marius Casadesus claimed in 1933 that he’d edited a long-lost manuscript by the 10-year-old Wolfgang and dubbed it Violin Concerto No. 7. Only 44 years later did he admit writing it himself. (The sixth concerto also turned out to be the work of someone else, possibly Mozart’s contemporary Johann Friedrich Eck.)

No, I’m thinking of masterpieces Mozart might have written and didn’t – or maybe did write, at least in part, and later lost or discarded.

The most obvious neglected instruments are trumpet and cello. Composers had written trumpet concertos since Baroque times, and Haydn produced a festive one a few years after Mozart’s early death. The cello had already emerged from obscurity in Mozart’s time, and he’d have heard both of Haydn’s cello concertos. Some scholars do think Mozart started one concerto for each instrument but didn’t finish them.

Why not? His letters don’t show any distaste for their sounds. By contrast, he made multiple snarky comments about flutes and flute players. Yet he wrote four quartets and a concerto for flute, an andante for flute and orchestra and a concerto for flute and harp. He also adapted his concerto for oboe into a second one for flute.

If you count the Sinfonia Concertante, a double concerto for violin and viola, he wrote at least one concerto for every string and wind instrument except double-bass. He also wrote four horn concertos, but that’s as far as he got into the brasses – nothing for trumpet or trombone, which Handel and Gluck popularized but which wasn’t thought of as a concerto instrument. (Mozart did use solo trombone to great effect in his Requiem.)

The answer must have been money. He wrote the world’s most sublime clarinet concerto, but not until virtuoso Anton Stadler wanted a piece for a Prague concert. When Mozart became the first freelance composer, as discussed in an earlier blog post, he no longer had a patron to provide a steady salary. He wrote on commission, supplying himself and others with showpieces as required. We can’t fault Mozart for ignoring corners of the repertoire that his genius might have enlivened. We have to blame the trumpeters, cellists and other instrumentalists who could have hired him and didn’t.

Mozart’s Music: Shorthand for Arrogance

By Lawrence Toppman

Ken Burns filled his documentary series “Baseball” with music from the period it covered, roughly 1870 through 1990. He used marches, jazz, folk songs, patriotic music, big band swing, pop tunes and protest anthems. Only in the segment where he focused on greed, lies and collusion among wealthy team owners out of touch with fans did he choose … the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Think about that. The most buoyant, witty and exuberant of comic-opera overtures underlined disgusting human traits.

This happens over and over with WAM. His page at the Internet Movie Data Base credits him with 1,574 appearances in films or TV shows. (My favorite factoid from that page: He received a best music nomination from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for “Amadeus,” losing that 1984 award to Ennio Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in America.”)

Sometimes Mozart’s tunes get used for moments that are poignant (the slow movement of a piano concerto), frenetic (“Figaro” or another overture) or spooky (the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria from “Magic Flute”). But his music often indicates meanness, cruelty, a sense of privilege and other unattractive behavior. I first noticed this in “Trading Places” 36 years ago. It happened again in the 1989 “Batman,” the 1994 “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and countless places over the last quarter-century.

Poor old “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” has been used a whopping 159 times — mostly in a dismissive way – from the TV series “The Simpsons” (12 times!) and “Bates Motel” to the feature films “Borat” and “Dr. Dolittle: Million-Dollar Mutts.” Mozart’s most beautifully crafted string serenade, graceful and sometimes touching, has become a none-too-subtle tipoff that some pinky-extending social bigot is about to get his comeuppance. That’s been going on since 1934, seven years after the synchronization of movie sound, in “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

This clichéd thinking tells us more about filmmakers than Mozart, who felt superior to others only as a composer-pianist. They equate formality and elegance with elitism, absence of deep feeling and snobbery. For them, WAM becomes a symbol not of classiness but class division.

You’ll search in vain for another composer treated in the same way. Beethoven (who’s in second place on IMDB with 1,465 credits), Bach (third place with 1,452) and all other classical composers get more respect than Mozart on the big and small screens.

Pictured: Madame François Buron by Jacques-Louis David; oil on canvas.

LGBTQ+ Choirs Raise Their Voices for Charlotte Pride Week

Even though the official U.S. Pride Month is in June, Charlotte has extended the celebration, with its regional Pride Week approaching in mid-August 2019. Amidst all of the fun and raucous excitement of Charlotte Pride, we wanted to remind you of a few classically-pertinent events to add to your Charlotte Pride festival calendar. 

Namely, we’re talking about the two LGBTQ+ affirming choruses in town: One Voice Chorus and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte.

The One Voice Chorus dates back to 1989, when it began with five Charlotteans hoping to create an accepting choral community for local LGBTQ+ individuals. Today One Voice has grown to include 70 singers, support members and staff. According to the website, One Voice was, “One of the pioneering gay-affirming choruses in the ‘Deep South.’”

In fact, still today One Voice represents one of fewer than a dozen LGBTQ+ choruses in the U.S. that allow women and men to perform together. One Voice’s general choir is non-auditioned, but it also includes a smaller, auditioned ensemble, Sotto Voce, which travels to perform around North Carolina and other neighboring states. 

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte (GMCC) has been a more recent addition to the Charlotte LGBTQ+ arts scene. Founded in 2006 by Artistic Director John Quillin, GMCC is made up of a general chorus as well as a smaller performance ensemble, 7th Son. According to a feature on the GMCC in Charlotte’s LGBTQ+ arts and entertainment publication, qnotes, Artistic Director Quillin has given a lot of attention to commissioning works by LGBTQ+ composers that spotlight LGBTQ+ issues. To date, the GMCC has commissioned Eric Lane Barns’ “Our Number One Problem,” which protests North Carolina’s HB2 law, and “At the Heart” by Garold Gurs, a song about a family whose daughter came out as trans at age four.

In January 2019, the GMCC became the first gay choir to sing for a professional sports team in North Carolina. The group sang before and at the halftime of the Charlotte Hornets inaugural Pride Night game.

This August’s Charlotte Pride festivities provide opportunities to attend performances from both One Voice and the GMCC. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte will make a “special appearance” at Saint Martin’s Episcopal Church’s Pride Mass on Friday, August 16, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. One Voice Chorus will perform from 1:00 – 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 17 at Flourish, Charlotte Pride’s “mini-arts festival” hosted at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The larger Flourish LGBTQ+ arts festival will continue from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m. 

Learn more about these free Charlotte Pride Week events: 
Pride Mass
Flourish: A Celebration of LGBTQ Arts and Culture