Instant Acclaim for John Muehleisen’s Pietà
A rare happening occurred Wednesday night at St. Mark’s Cathedral: the premiere of John Muehleisen’s Pietà. The rarity is in the work itself. How often today do we hear an oratorio-length choral work composed and performed, much less commissioned? It was a privilege to be there, and already I want to hear it again.
Kudos in the first place to Muehleisen for the courage to spend time on such a work and the insight, thoughtfulness, and musicianship which which he has created a major religious piece. This Pietà could be performed in Lenten seasons and should enter the choral repertoire with acclaim.
Kudos also to artistic director Robert Bode and the board of Choral Arts who made the commission and the commitment to perform the completed work. And lastly, kudos to the performers, Choral Arts, who sang the choir segments, St. Mark’s Cathedral Compline Choir, who sang the chanted sections, Seattle Girls’ Choir’s Prime Voci Ensemble, the treble choir, and the soloists, tenor Ross Hauck and soprano Christina Kowalski.
Pietà, as Muehleisen described in the notes at the beginning, is not meant in the usual English understanding of pity, but in its deeper translation of compassion and mercy. This isn’t an oratorio where there is a dramatic narrative with commentary. It’s closer to a requiem, bringing to mind Britten’s War Requiem which had its premiere 50 years ago and was a message about the tragedy of human deaths in the idiocy of war.
Muehleisen’s work is not a requiem per se, though it addresses the sorrow and pain of loss of mothers’ sons, and the way love, compassion and mercy can heal the voids. He does this in concentric circles, the innermost being the death of Jesus, Mary’s son, next the loss of sons in battle, particularly in World War One, and outermost, the losses of today and the importance of healing and forgiveness worldwide.
Where Britten used the text of the Requiem Mass interspersed with poems of World War One poet Wilfred Owen, Muehleisen has used a more eclectic variety of texts. He has used some of Owen’s poems, a body of work from a young soldier which are devastating in their indictment of war (he was killed November 4, 1918), but he has also used words from many other sources, including ones taken from the Orthodox Christian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a letter from Rudyard Kipling’s son written two days before he was killed in 1915, plus quotations from the Bible and poetry or verses from various sources, including one by William Blake.
Young Kipling’s letter is followed by an exchange on his mother’s 18-month search for answers about her son’s death (his body was never identified). And who will forget the 1998 Colorado murder of young gay man Matthew Shepard? The Pietà begins with excerpts from the homily given at his memorial.
Muehleisen has also, in time-honored, 18th-century fashion, borrowed music from several sources. His own is modern in harmonies, sometimes clashing, but never muddy. Some of the words he has chosen he has fitted (sometimes they seem a little awkward) to familiar Bach Chorales, while the Pietà ends with a 19th-century hymn, Henry Baker’s O God of Love, O King of Peace, sung by choirs and audience together.
While this could have been a disparate mishmash of music and words, in Muehleisen’s hands it is anything but. The whole hangs together tightly like a rainbow with its differing strands meshed side by side in a complete and perfect arc.
Only a couple of oboes and English horn (Janet Putnam and Daniel Timchak), a raft of percussion (Rob Tucker and Greg Wende) and rarely, organ (Alan Depuy), accompany the Pietà. Muehleisen uses chimes and marimba, cymbals and drum to great effect, while there are moments when the oboes are used as Bach used them in obbligato duets. It’s often a spare accompaniment, used not to cushion but to further the meaning of the words.
While the core of the music comes with the Passion story, the most moving moment of this performance came with the unaccompanied singing by Hauck of a traditional Civil War song, music and words by George F. Root. The words are a farewell to his mother from a soldier going into battle, the tune quite simple, but Hauck brought out every heartfelt word.
There is much else which could be said about this work. Suffice it now to say that all three choirs sang with clear words and seamless connection. Robert Bode conducted the whole, keeping the flow and eliciting the expression it required. He did not conduct the Compline Choir or the Prime Voci and while they were behind the audience, their own conductors, who were not recognized, were I think directing their segments.
Soprano Kowalski gave not enough expression to her words which in her case were mostly unintelligible, and she tended to sing very loudly on all high notes. It was a disappointment particularly in comparison to the choirs and Hauck, who gave so much meaning to this performance.
The program notes were clear, explanatory and helpful, and the cathedral lights were up so it was possible to keep track of the proceedings.
Pietà is a 90-minute work, which was sung without intermission except for a quiet five minutes during which the choir sat down to rest (otherwise they stood throughout). It’s a major accomplishment which I hope other choirs will take up.