Few hate crimes conjure a more brutal picture than the case of Matthew Shepard.
Twenty-five years ago, Shepard was lured from a bar by two men and beaten. The 21-year-old gay college student was tied to a fence in a field and left for dead in the freezing Wyoming winter for 18 hours before he was found by a passerby and rushed to a hospital. He later died of his injuries.
Shepard’s death on Oct. 12, 1998, shocked the country, catapulting his name and the demands for greater LGBTQ+ protections to the forefront of American conversation. Some good did come from Shepard’s tragedy, notably namesake legislation that classified violence motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity as punishable hate crimes.
In the decades since, dozens of documentaries, soundtracks and other creative works, like the stage play “The Laramie Project,” continue to keep the memory of Shepard circulating. Those memories of Shepard are alive in Long Beach, too.
To mark the 25th anniversary of Shepard’s death this year, South Coast Chorale is bringing to stage a stunning tribute concert of song, poetry and theater quite unlike anything the Long Beach LGBTQ+ chorus has done before.
“October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard” will debut on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Beverly O’Neill Theater. Over 100 voices, a 30-piece orchestra and actors from Landmark Theatre will bring to life an original choral oratorio inspired by the poetry of Lesléa Newman’s acclaimed book of the same name and reimagined for song by local composer Curtis Heard.
Newman’s book, published in 2012, explores the events of Shepard’s murder through a tapestry of fictional perspectives — from the nurse who treated him to the fence he was tied to. Written entirely in verse, the lyrical strength of the poetry was what caught the attention of Heard, who spent the better part of a year crafting the 68-poem book into an emotional and elegant two-hour musical experience.
Though, Heard admits, the musical triumph wasn’t something he had planned on doing.
“It just kind of snowballed,” he explained by phone.
Heard, who stays very busy as the choir director at Wilson High School and the music director at First Congregational Church of Long Beach, was approached by a high school teacher in 2013 who was putting on a staged version of “October Mourning” with her drama class. She hoped Heard would write some accompanying music.
“So, I took a look at the book and, of course, was immediately amazed at how good it was,” Heard said. “And so, I found a few poems I thought worked well to be sung.”
Not long after, Heard discovered that Newman would be speaking at an English teachers’ conference in Whittier and was invited to perform his compositions there. It was well received, he said, and it encouraged him to keep going.
About 15 vocal settings with choral arrangements and instrumental accompaniment later, Heard would go on to have his fully-fledged concert performed in May of 2014 at First Congregational Church of Long Beach, replete with a girls choral group, a 12-piece orchestra, a handbell choir and organ accompaniment.
“The overall impact for me was that in spite of the violence in the horrific act, there was some hope and glimmers of light scattered throughout to counteract the darkness,” Heard said. “So, I tried to capture that in the music.
His work caught the attention of the South Coast Chorale’s music director Chris Smith the following year who jumped at the chance to perform a follow-up concert at First Congregational in 2015. “October Mourning” would also reach audiences in Fort Wayne, Indiana with the professional choir, Heartland Sings.
This year’s performance of “October Mourning,” promises to be an even more impactful experience in scope and collaboration, with six local arts organizations contributing to the large-scale concert.
The 50-voice South Coast Chorale will be joined by the First Congregational Church Sanctuary and Handbell Choir, the Long Beach Youth Chorus and members of the Wilson High School Choir, totaling to about 120 voices, Heard said, who will perform altogether in the last movements of the concert.
The Musique Sur La Mer Chamber Orchestra will accompany the performance, as well as actors from Landmark Theatre, who will perform the speaking parts of the book. Local arts leaders Griselda Suarez of the Arts Council for Long Beach and Sunshine Daye, a spiritual leader and speaker were also brought on board as narrators.
It’s been almost a decade since Heard’s oratorio was first performed. Today, he thinks the messages within the work are still as powerful and important as they’ve ever been.
“I hope that audiences will be reminded that hate and insane violence just wreak havoc on our society,” he said. “I have to say that this is still relevant. And not just if you’re LGBTQ but just in general, divisiveness leads to violence and I think that’s what the world still needs to tackle.”
The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Beverly O’Neill Theater at the Long Beach Convention Center. Prior to the performance, at 6 p.m., a pre-concert discussion will delve into the enduring impact of Matthew Shepard’s story and the creation of Heard’s oratorio. Tickets to the show range from $25 to $65. Click here to purchase tickets.