John Muehleisen

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

By BRUCE BROWNE

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.

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