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Arts & Culture

NC State Choral Artists Prepare for Debut with ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’

Members of the NC State Choral Artists rehearse for "Considering Matthew Shepard."
Members of the NC State Choral Artists rehearse for "Considering Matthew Shepard."

On March 23, members of the NC State and Raleigh communities are invited to experience a Department of Performing Arts and Technology (DPAT) performance of “Considering Matthew Shepard.”

The piece is a powerful musical work telling the tragic story of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was murdered in 1998. The piece holds power because of its message alone, but also heralds the launch of a new DPAT program: the NC State Choral Artists. 

Nathan Leaf, DPAT’s director of choral activities, described the new program as a public-private partnership between NC State’s choral program and Raleigh’s professional music scene. The NC State Choral Artists will be a 30-voice choir, most of whom are professional musicians, along with some advanced NC State students and recent graduates. 

“The goal is to enable our students to experience a high-level choral music performance, to do it collaboratively, and to be able to engage the entire campus in these efforts,” Leaf said. 

The goal is to enable our students to experience a high-level choral music performance.

Leaf explained that NC State choral students have frequently had opportunities to be part of professional productions, including the North Carolina Symphony’s Holiday Pops concert series last December. 

Leaf has long aimed to create a program at NC State that would allow students to participate in professional productions. In March 2023, the planning finally began. Now, the new program’s first performance is mere weeks away. 

“It’s thrilling,” Leaf said. “On a personal level, it’s super exciting when something that you’ve hoped to do starts to come to fruition.”

Nathan Leaf directs the NC State Choral Artists’ rehearsal.

For a number of reasons, Leaf thought of “Considering Matthew Shepard” as an ideal piece to start the NC State Choral Artists program. As a graduate student, Leaf sang for Craig Hella Johnson, the composer of the piece. He also taught for a year at the University of Wyoming. 

The piece includes different styles of music, including classical, country western and gospel, and ranges from fun, lighthearted music to very serious, and, according to Leaf “brutal,” befitting the tragic topic. The key, however, is its welcoming nature. 

“Violence, especially as related to LGBTQ issues, is a complicated topic, and it’s a hard topic to talk about,” Leaf said. “ What makes me very excited about this work is that it presents it in a very open, thoughtful, non-judgemental way.  I think that does a lot of good. The whole thing ends with a song called “All of Us”, which is about how all of us are living this life together. It brings us all together in a way that is beautiful and non-judgemental about anyone, which is the key to his oratorio.” 

This particular performance will include both the Choral Artists and the NC State Chorale, NC State’s premier student choral ensemble, which this semester includes 67 singers. Additionally, the performance includes a small instrumental ensemble.

This will give NC State’s students an opportunity to interact and engage with professional vocal artists, enhancing the learning they’ve already done in the university’s choral program. 

“It’s an opportunity for them to be in a really advanced ensemble and to grow their skills and their perspective on music-making in an advanced way,” Leaf said. 

For the NC State students who will perform with the Choral Artists, that advanced level was immediately apparent at the first rehearsal. 

One of those students, Yi Chen, called it a much faster-paced environment, saying that, with the Choral Artists, it took about the same amount of time to learn 25 songs for the performance as it normally does one song in class. 

“I think it’s really interesting to see how the rehearsal is done in this setting,” Chen said. “Compared to a university choir rehearsal, there’s a lot less of the conductor explaining things and going through things slowly. It’s assumed that there’s a common vocabulary and baseline of common knowledge. I think that makes things go a lot faster, and it’s really interesting to see that once you get to a certain level of choral training. There are a lot of things in rehearsals that everybody just knows and you can assume that everybody knows. As a conductor, you can keep going and not have to look at every little bit and explain it.” 

NC State students, faculty, staff and members of the public can register for a ticket to this free show, as the NC State Choral Artists prepare to launch their new program with a resonating message. 

“The title is really true,” Leaf said. “It’s about considering the whole situation and finding a unified way forward. This work presents this topic in a way that is inviting to people. I think it’s going to be a very positive thing for the students and our campus and meaningful to a lot of people.