Craig Hella Johnson is a choral conductor and composer who is keeping an important person's legacy alive through music.
Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998 after being tortured and tied to a fence in near freezing temperatures by two men. His attack and death led to hate crime legislation being created and passed as law. His mother, Judy Shepard, became a LGBT activist and his life became inspiration for a show coming to Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois.
Johnson has a strong background in music, studying it throughout school. He founded and is the artistic director for the group Conspire, which won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance for its album The Sacred Spirit of Russia.
Windy City Times: Tell our readers about you.
Craig Hella Johnson: I am from northern Minnesota. I received a piano performance degree in college at St. Olaf.
WCT: Like Rose Nylund from The Golden GirlsSt. Olaf?
CHJ: [Laughs] It's a real choral school and they finally gave her an honorary degree. I was at University of Illinois, Juilliard and did a doctorate at Yale.
I have been in Texas for over 20 years. I came down for a job at the University of Texas in Austin to lead the choral program. I was the artistic director at Chanticleer and for many years director of the Victoria Bach Festival. I have been the resident artist at Texas State University. I also do a lot of guest conducting.
I am the founder of Conspirare. That is my main job. We are celebrating our 25th anniversary along with these tours this year.
WCT: You live with your partner in Texas?
CHJ: YesPhilip Overbaugh.
WCT: How did you get started with the Matthew Shepard project?
CHJ: It has been an extraordinary and meaningful project to be involved with. Back in 1998, when I first learned about Matt Shepard and what had happened to him really pierced my heart. I had the initial instinct in wanting to respond in some way.
As a choral conductor, I imagined creating a passion piece for Matthew Shepard. I felt I need to commit time to it. In 2012, I decided to really step forward with it and did a workshop by 2014. In 2016 we had the complete version of this. It was something we needed to do as a personal expression. I was glad Conspire was interested in performing it and Harmonia Mundi was interested in recording it.
The fact it has taken a more extended journey has been really beautiful. We are doing three tours this year. We have sang it at Boston Symphony Hall last year and student groups at Harvard. With commemorating the 20th year of Matt's life and death a lot more performances with other groups will start springing up.
WCT: Describe the show.
CHJ: It is a 100 minutes long, so concert-length, with no intermission. We focus on the last days of Matthew Shepard's life and the tragic events that occurred. At the beginning we introduce Matt as a living vibrant person. There is a movement called "Ordinary Boy" that really brings snapshots of him. It is not his death story, but his life story.
There are some of his own words that we share from his journals when he was in high school and early college.
I talk about the pieces as a form of meditation so the listener can face some of these existential questions. These expressions of hate and violence is something we can hardly fathom. Is love with a capitol L anywhere to be found?
It is about Matt, but also the listener, too. There are questions about why this would take place in our world. The piece ends in a place of hope. We don't leave these performances in the dark of it all. We leave this invitation in a place where hope can lead us.
There is a feeling of connection and renewal. The experience is a hybrid for sure. We are a professional choir, so those are our roots. I conduct from the piano. We have eight instruments. It is a broad spectrum of styles. There are classical elements with country folk songs, blues and Gregorian chant. It is intended to reach many listeners. It is stylistically rich in that way.
WCT: Are there visuals?
CHJ: There are some beautiful visuals that hold the work. We see pictures of Matt and read words from his journal. They are projected in his own writing. It is lovely what our team has put together here. I'm very inspired by what they have done.
WCT: Has Matthew's family seen this?
CHJ: Yes. They are super-supportive and have been from the beginning. Judy first saw it in Boston at Symphony Hall.
WCT: Have you heard the Elton John song "American Triangle?"
CHJ: Of course. Elton John has heard our music also. He wrote a note to Judy expressing approval for the piece and admiration for it.
WCT: Jason Marsden, from the foundation, is involved somehow?
CHJ: Yes. He is the director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. He travels with us often and will speak at our talkbacks after the concert. This has really been a partnership and they have been very supportive.
WCT: What do you want audiences to take away from your show?
CHJ: I want people to have an experience of coming into the conference hall, to slow down and breathe. I want them to connect with themselves and others.
In the title I love the word "considering." I like to invite people to a place of consideration. I hope it can connect us.
WCT: You won a Grammy. Where do you store it?
CHJ: It is actually on the piano at home. Everybody wants to hold it. The group has been nominated eight times so it was nice to win.
WCT: What is next for you?
CHJ: We have September, October and April tours. We have a full year of the 25th-anniversary celebrations in Austin so several concerts throughout the season here.
I am working on a new piece that should be completed in the fall of 2019. I am having a great time making music and I feel fortunate to be able to do it.
Visit Ravinia.org for the tickets to Considering Matthew Shepard on Wed., Sept. 12. For more on the choral ensemble, visit Conspire.org .