It was pure happenstance that I was there. But there was no mistake about the impact that the evening had on me.
As an usher at the Norshor Theater, I was trolling the open spots when I noticed a desperate last minute plea for ushers needed for a choral program. The date was open on my calendar, so I signed up. It was only then that I did a little research on just what it was I was going to hear.
My first clue was discovering that the Twin Ports Choral Project, the performing choir, is entirely made up of highly trained professional musicians. Every one of the 30 or so singers has lengthy vocal credentials. I knew I was in for a fine choral performance.
Then I looked into the piece being performed, “Considering Matthew Shepard.” In my ignorance, I did not know the story of Matthew Shepard, the young gay college student who was lured into the Wyoming countryside in 1998 by two men posing as gays, brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. For eighteen endless hours he remained there, alive but just barely. He was discovered by a passing cyclist and died five days later, surrounded by his family.
A woman from Matthew’s town could not let go of the tragedy, and memorialized it in poetry. That was later put to music, creating the oratorio that would be performed at the Norshor. Despite now knowing the background, I was totally unprepared for the power of that evening’s performance.
Choir members were simply dressed in black, there was only a wooden fence on the stage for a prop. Three dancers in loose white clothing moved rhythmically to a few of the numbers. A plaid flannel shirt represented Matthew, later held by the woman who sang his mother’s part. There was no need for elaborate costumes or props. The music and the words stood on their own.
The musicians’ perfection carried the music, at times dissonant and atonal, at others slow and hushed. I followed the libretto printed in the program, the story unfolding. Included were words from Matthew’s own journal. His father’s statement at his funeral.
We were told that there would be no intermission, no applause during the concert. We were not told that we’d be holding our breath. That silence would reign among our seats. That we’d be touched to the core by the raw emotion, our hearts profoundly moved.
I heartily wished I’d been there with a friend. I wanted to relive the experience with someone else, talk about it, share the feelings it evoked. I tried hard to convey its impact, but without being in that audience no one could truly relate to it.
That evening stayed with me. Showed me that I need to step into uncomfortable territory. That music is important to me. So when another opportunity arose soon afterwards, I grasped it.
This time it was the lead-off event for the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial – commemorating 100 years since three black circus performers were lynched in Duluth. Strangers in town, wrongly accused of raping a white woman, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie were jailed. An angry mob 10,000 strong stormed the jail, beat and tortured the men and hung them from a lampost. In 2003, a memorial was erected on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue E, to keep the story alive.
Another musical performance ensued. It started with “Song of a New Race,” a lyrical orchestral piece that conjured up hope for the future. That was followed by an oratorio called “…And They Lunched Him on a Tree.” It chronicles a different lynching, but conveys the same sense of horror, of a mother’s grief, of the ordinariness of the victim, and the injustice. It finishes with a haunting truth, “And clear the shadow, the long dark shadow, That falls across your land.”
The final piece by Jean Perrault was commissioned for this event, performed by a trio of piano, cello and violin. I heard him speak about “We Three Kings” on the radio beforehand. He described the depths he had to reach to be able to compose the piece. To sink into the same darkness that spawned those evil deeds. It is not music to be enjoyed, he explained. The music is meant to elicit emotion, to bring listeners to the place of death and back out again. By the time the strings had stilled, I knew what he meant.
Music has power over me. Moves me. Changes me. I’m so glad I was there to hear it.