Last Sunday (October 29), the Portland Symphonic Choir declared a passionate plea for empathy and peace with its performance of John Muehleisen’s “Pietá,” a hybrid oratorio. The 120-voice choir created some massive fortes that may have been heard outside the walls of First United Methodist Church and there were many touching moments in the 90-minute work in the series of exchanges between the choir, small vocal ensembles, and the fine soloists, soprano Arwen Meyers and tenor Branden Tuohy.
But I am still puzzled by the composer’s reworking of various musical styles. Instead of developing his own musical style, Muehleisen employed a pastiche of earlier music. For a small ensemble of men, he wrote a series of chants that were a blend of Byzantine and Russian Orthodox styles. The chorale sections were drawn right from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and some of the instrumental music from the “St. John Passion.” One of Tuohy’s solos, “Just before the battle, Mother” was a popular song from the American Civil War. The final piece was the hymn “O God of Love, O King of Peace,” in which the listeners joined in. Where was Muehleisen’s own style in all this? It seemed that the work was basically a very skilled arrangement.
Perhaps I got off to a negative start, because Muehleisen introduced his work with a 15-minute lecture that repeated most of the content of the program notes which he had written. I think it was terrific to have the composer speak about his work, but five minutes would have been plenty. In any case, the piece consisted of six scenes (or movements) that were shaped very symmetrically with a prologue and epilogue on the outside, two movements dealing with a son (John Kipling) who dies in a war (WWI) and the sorrow of his mother followed by two movements that retell the passion of Jesus, including the resurrection.
A core group of men sang a number of chants sections convincingly with one of the men singing and conducting the group. Guest conductor Erick Lichte guided the rest of the forces, which included some fine playing by Kelly Gronlin and Alan Juza (oboe and English horn), Jeff Peyton (timpani and percussion), Grian Gardiner (percussion), and Doug Schneider (chimes and organ). Twice during the piece, an ensemble of women from the choir moved to the right side of the stage area and fashioned an pure sound with zero vibrato that was absolutely angelic.
Arwen Myers sang her solos with passion and commitment, her vibrant soprano rising above the choir in a wail of anguish during “The Passion of the Mother.” Tuohy was equally effective, using his lyrical yet powerful tenor with terrific expertise. It would be great to hear them again in another PSC program sometime in the near future.
The climatic message of the piece, “Believe in a love that conquers all – even death,” was augmented by spoken text from Martin Luther King Jr. and cemented by a series of joyous alleluias from the choir. Yet it seemed odd that the Muehleisen chose not to write a new hymn for congregational to sing at the end. To me, that could have taken his “Pietá” up a notch.