Craig Johnson. (Photo courtesy James Goulden)
2 upcoming concerts share the healing power of music
Music is an undeniable force. In the form of a Sousa march, it invigorates; as a lullaby, it soothes and comforts; and in the form of a ballad, it can simultaneously break and mend hearts. Without a doubt, music holds the power to unite people of dissimilar cultures and even different languages. Often, we seek music for another of its remarkable powers, that of healing. In this regard, two upcoming musical presentations offer Dallas special opportunity to celebrate community with song.
From hate springs hope
As it did for many, news of Matthew Shepard’s horrific October 1998 murder pierced Craig Hella Johnson. While circumstances surrounding the brutal killing unfolded, Johnson found himself introspective, examining the notions of both hate and love. It was then that he realized a need to respond in a way he knew best: through music.
“[Music is] a language that runs deeper than our spoken language,” says Johnson, the out conductor of renowned Austin-based choral ensemble Conspirare. “I think the only language for me that is deeper is silence itself. That space that communicates the deepest is in stillness and silence. I’ve devoted my life to the premise that music always carries transformational power. How music changes us is different for every individual. I just believe in the power of music to change lives and to heal.”
Nearly 15 years passed before Johnson began work on the oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard, a concert which DMA’s Arts & Letters Live presents Wednesday at Moody Performance Hall. Despite the passage of more than a decade, Johnson’s emotions remained raw. Early in the process, he determined the proper way to address the tragedy was to take listeners on a lyrical journey, at times dark and difficult. Audiences needed to face the story’s ugliness in order to take something meaningful away. More importantly, Johnson knew he had to ask listeners to examine themselves.
“I think [the key is] stepping into this story and meeting it directly and being able to experience it together in a communal space,” Johnson says. “As we address this, and if we are willing to allow music to hold up a mirror and help us examine our own interior story in our lives, there is this potential to come together in a place that’s meaningfully deeper and broader.”
Predictably, the piece resonates strongly within the LGBT community, as it centers on the merciless treatment of one of our own. But Johnson learned that the core message is also transcendent, cutting through many other segments of society.
“This kind of hateful thinking, this kind of mindset in the culture that’s really so deeply embedded: that I am separate from you, that we share nothing in common, this way that we project out onto this separateness … that’s universal, that’s not just LGBTQ,” Johnson says. “There is powerful resonance in the story across the spectrum of human community.”
Johnson finds that audience reactions are always powerful, from vibrant and robust ovations to profound, calming silences. Perhaps the greatest testament to the concert’s moving nature, however, is the sheer number of people who stick around afterwards for talkbacks. At the Dallas event, both Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s parents, are slated to attend representing the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“At some of these talkbacks we’ve had 400 people … 500 at one,” Johnson says. “It’s sort of like they want to stay in that communal space. I think one response that has been interesting to me, [one] that’s very common, is [hearing], ‘I was reluctant to come to this because it’s such a sad story and I thought it was going to be all down.’ They would [then] remark, ‘I was very surprised at how hopeful I felt, how joyful at the end of this.’ They really took the journey.”
As for the future, Johnson intends to keep singing his way through troubled times.
“It’s a deeply unsettled time and very difficult for so many people,” Johnson says. “Everyone is feeling a fatigue. There is so much swirling around right now. We need to make art. We need to sing into this in a very active way to be participants in the forward motion and the healing. This is really an important part of what Conspirare and I want to do.”
Sharing through song
David Friedman offers another perspective on the power of music. Over the course of his career, Friedman has worn an assortment of hats, working as a conductor, a musical director and a composer. He finds, however, the hat that fits most comfortably is that of songwriter. In fact, Friedman considers songwriting more of a calling than a job.
“I would say that my purpose on this earth is healing,” Friedman says. “My music is written to heal. A lot of my music — a lot of my songs — were written because of the AIDS crisis. ‘We Can Be Kind,’ ‘Help is on the Way’ and ‘We Live on Borrowed Time’ were songs written for [charitable] events. Whenever I’ve conducted on Broadway, when I have done Disney movies, it was always about healing.”
Friedman’s life, though, was not always as sunlit as the style of songs for which he has become known. During his college years, he married his high school sweetheart, despite knowing that he was gay. He also considered studying business — “I was an artist raised to be an accountant,” he jokes — even though he believed he was destined for more creative pursuits.
Before resolving to come out, Friedman’s acts of self-denial eventually led to depression and a little time in a mental hospital.
“I remember thinking in college, ‘If I’m gay, I’m going to have to kill myself,’ Friedman says. “Actually, coming out was the first real act of me deciding that what was going on inside of me was more important than what anybody might think of me. I actually hanged the hat of my self-confidence on that.”
Friedman’s darkest hours were difficult and painful, but it was the suffering that led him to songwriting. As Friedman began to figure life out, he began to write. He found that songwriting revealed aspects of himself of which he had not consciously been aware.
“My friends say, ‘Oh my god, your songs are so wise! You must be so centered!’” Friedman says with a laugh. “I say, ‘These songs are given to me because I need to hear them as much as you. If you think I think help is on the way, you are out of your mind!’”
On Feb. 24, Friedman visits Unity of Dallas to lead a very personal concert. Listen to my Heart is a collection of Friedman’s works performed by local artists. He sees the event as a unique opportunity to bring various members of the immediate community into one setting for the purpose of healing.
“I have a lot of connections down there,” Friedman says of North Texas (he has worked with both Lyric Stage and Casa Manana). “We collected a great group of singers and thought, ‘Let’s get all of their fan bases in the same room. [Let’s] get me there and do a healing, joyful, entertaining evening of songs.’”
The concert ends with a number of Friedman’s most popular hits — ones he calls his “warhorses” — including “We Can Be Kind,” a song Friedman feels offers an especially relevant message at this time. It also happens to be his favorite.
“Kindness is something we can always choose,” Friedman says. “We can hate someone and be kind. We can be helpless to help someone and be kind. We can have a very big difference of opinion politically or in terms of taste, but we can be kind. I just find that, especially now that there is such a climate of unkindness in this country and in the world, that’s the song I see as what I have to offer the world more than anything.”
— Scott Huffman
Considering Matthew Shepard, Moody Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St. Feb.21, 7:30 p.m., DMA.org.
Listen to my Heart, Unity Church of Dallas, 6525 Forest Lane. Feb. 24.