The New England Master Chorale this weekend presents three concerts of the new oratorio “Considering Matthew Shepard,” composed by Craig Hella Johnson in recognition of a hate crime that gripped the nation 20 years ago.
The performances will take place at 8 p.m. Friday in the South Church, 292 South State St., Portsmouth; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the First Congregational Church, 117 N. Main St., Concord; and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Plymouth Congregational Church, 3 Post Office Square.
The concert-length work tells the story of the brutal 1998 murder of a gay 21-year-old Wyoming student, and offers emotionally powerful meditations on evil and on redemption through community.
The powerful oratorio will feature chamber orchestra as well as the 30-voice Master Chorale, and each concert will be preceded by a talk by Massachusetts poet and author Lesléa Newman, who is the author of “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.”
Dan Perkins, director of the Master Chorale, says he immediately began planning to perform “Considering Matthew Shepard” when he heard its Boston premiere two years ago. He notes his students at Plymouth State University, where he’s director of choral activities, were born around the time of Shepard’s death.
“Being able to bring the story and its surrounding issues to my current students and the communities in which I make music,” Perkins says, “is a way to personally and publicly address the unacceptable resurgence of hate speech and action in our current culture.”
The 2016 oratorio, for chorus and chamber orchestra, features a unique mix of musical styles, ranging from Bach and Gregorian chant to country, folk, blues, gospel and contemporary choral scene-painting.
The words are equally diverse. They include passages from shepard’s journal, written while he was in college, and wrenching testimony spoken by his mother Judy at the trial of his murderers. Other lyrics come from Lesléa Newman’s 2012 poetry collection, the 11th-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, the American poet Michael Dennis Browne, the words of Blake and Dante, Bengali and Persian poets, native American prayers and contemporary Wyoming poets.
On October 6, 1998, two young men took Shepard to a lonely field, tied him to a split-rail fence, beat him savagely and left him there to suffer for 18 hours until a passing cyclist discovered him. His heart stopped six days later.
The crime drew international news coverage and sparked a drive to enact anti-hate crime laws at the federal and state levels.
In 2009, then-President Barrack Obama signed a federal anti-hate crime law that bears Shepard’s name and that of another hate-crime victim, an African-American named Joseph Byrd Jr., who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death a few months before Shepard’s murder.
The performances follow an Oct. 26 service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to inter Shepard’s ashes there. The service featured excerpts from “Considering Matthew Shepard” performed by Conspirare, the Texas chorus led by Johnson.
Tickets are $25-$30; $15 for groups of 10 or more. There is no admission fee for undergraduates and students in kindergarten through the 12th grade. The chorale also has a “pay what you are able” ticket policy for those who are unable to pay.