This month marks 25 years since Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped and brutally murdered.

The killing had a profound impact on composer Craig Hella Johnson, who responded with a modern-day oratorio called Considering Matthew Shepard. The work tells Matthew’s story through music, poetry, and choral singing.

Members of the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorus will join the Winston-Salem Symphony in a presentation conducted by Christopher Gilliam this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. It will be performed at Wake Forest University’s Brendle Recital Hall.

WFDD’s Neal Charnoff recently spoke with Christopher Gilliam in the WFDD studios.

Interview highlights

On the tradition of composers using their works to transcend tragedy:

"I feel like, for all of us, musical themes identify a time, a place, an emotion, a sense of meaning. So for Craig to utilize these kinds of themes, there is a sense of kind of full circle-ness, that our lives today are really no different from theirs, the same prejudices, the same angry mobs, the same terrible ways in which we tend to deal with our misunderstanding. And so music reminds us of all of those things, but it also reminds us of that that is redemptive and beautiful."

On what this piece means to him personally: 

"I grew up in North Carolina as a gay boy who was closeted around a loving family and around loving people, but in an environment that preached that gay people would go to hell. So there is an internalized fear that goes with one throughout life. And to be able to bring this beautiful piece, this very redemptive work about what it means to the impact and the despicable nature of hate, for anyone who is different, or for whatever reason, it doesn't even have to be about orientation or sexuality. For me, as a conductor, to be able to finally stand on the stage and with confidence, present this material, with hope that it will inspire others who have also struggled ... that means a great deal to me as a conductor." 

On why Matthew's story resonates 25 years after his death: 

"I believe that so many years later, hopefully, what we bring home with the performance of this work, and with the understanding of its intent, is to say that humanity has these issues that we have to engage in, we have to recognize that there is peace, that there can be a resolution."

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