Portland Symphonic Choir review: magnificent melange

Triumphant Oregon premiere of composer John Muehleisen's massive 'Pieta' combines varied musical styles and poetry to respond to social ills


John Muehleisen 90-minute Pieta is a mélange – in a good way – of all sorts of musical gestures: Byzantine chant; Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hymnody; Bulgarian hymns; and familiar chorale tunes, many based on tunes melodies from J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion. Too, there is plentiful use of borrowed music, from a Civil War song by George F. Root to quotations from Bach, and a short motif from early baroque composer Antonio Caldara’s Stabat Mater. Muehleisen is certainly an equal opportunity borrower.

Since its Seattle premiere in 2012, Pieta has received several significant performances and, is receiving nationwide recognition. The composer was on hand to participate in and to witness Portland Symphonic Choir‘s rousing performance of its Oregon premiere in First United Methodist Church, on the last Saturday and Sunday afternoons in October.

Arwen Myers and Brendan Tuohy sang with Portland Symphonic Choir. Photo: Toni Wise.

An opportunity was missed, since Mr. Muehleisen was in residence with the choir most of the preceding week. Why not offer a pre-concert encounter sometime earlier in the evening/day? I loved what the composer had to say about his work; it was enlightening, and important. But this forced a 4:20 PM downbeat for the concert. Still, what followed was well worth it— for Muehleisen, for the guest conductor Erick Lichte, for the Portland Symphonic Choir and soloists Arwen Myers and Brendan Tuohy.

Soprano soloist Myers was radiant in the role of the Mother of Jesus, and probably, a universal mother to all. Her part demands a sprawling range, and an armor-piercing tone at times, all beautifully executed. In character throughout, Myers came through it all with a perfect aplomb, and pitch perfect musicianship.

Tenor soloist Tuohy has a silvery toned delivery. He too met most of the challenges of the score, but occasionally fought with the pitch center. After he returned to the stage following a dramatic exit in the first half of the show, the voice was perfectly in command.

Lichte is easy to watch; his gestures are clear, and he seems totally immersed in the music-making. (He honed his talents from a young age, when he founded Cantus, a small-sized men’s choir from Minnesota; he now directs one of the best male choirs on the continent, Chor Leoni from Vancouver B.C.)

The Portland Symphonic Choir reacted to each of Lichtes’ demands and gestures as if pre-programmed for excellence. All the women sang well; sopranos were translucent. The men were clear in their chanting, which takes place often in the score. Basses though, seemed to lack a center of focus in the low end.  I would love a lot more bassoon–like sound, and less diffusion. Maybe it’s partly the acoustics, but that gruffness at the bottom of the sonic pyramid did distract at times.

Erick Lichte conducted Portland Symphonic Choir.

The score is spare in its instrumental components: two oboes and English horns played in alternation by Kelly Gronli (who soared in some of her beautifully written solo lines) and Alan Juza; organ and chimes played by Assistant Artistic Director Doug Schneider. The work also features many solo passages for percussion, allowing them a dramatic, not just rhythmic, role, and showcasing two very capable performers, Jeff Peyton and Brian Gardiner.

Pieta’s lyrics also feature a small constellation of famous and not so well known poets and significant others: Wilfred Owen (used also in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem); Jack Kipling, son of Rudyard, along with William Blake and Violet Fane. All work together to, according to the composer’s program notes, “extend the concept of the resurrection as a metaphor for personal change and healing.”

The devotion Muehleisen pays to the text is admirable, although the retrofitting of (English) text to the preexisting (German) chorales felt manipulated and was an occasional distraction from the otherwise seamless line. Kudos to PSC for providing supertext; it added greatly to the performance.

The power and scope of this score are emotionally palpable. Muehleisen has gathered his musical and textual forces to highlight “compassion and mercy” in the face of an observable paucity of those qualities in many corners of the world, and our own country. He writes further: “Pieta provides listeners with the opportunity to confront and explore a set of values and principles that have become increasingly important for our nation and the world: the need for compassion, mercy, justice, relationships, not just between individuals, but across our society and between nations and cultures as well. It also addresses the question of how we respond to the manifold tragedies and injustices we see every day on the news and in our lives.”

Here, we might reflect on how the composer handled the disparate styles and the demands of the transitions, blending all into a whole. Pieta is a mélange that is life itself: choices, experiences, interactions, joys and sorrows that propel us toward an ever-moving target.

Nevertheless, many of the spiritual goals were met Sunday. Many audience members and singers were moved to tears at the close of the concert.

Portland Symphonic Choir is in conductor search mode this year. Mr. Lichte has withdrawn his name from the trio of candidates, but two other very capable choices remain: Dr. Samuel Barbera (December 9-10) and Dr. Richard Sparks (May 19-20). As Thanksgiving approaches, we can be thankful for the gifts of the choral arts, and in particular, Mr. Muehleisen great offering of a latter day oratorio that moves us. His is a gift for the ages, and for our better angels.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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