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Review: Conspirare sings Muehleisen’s ‘Pieta’

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Conspirare’s ambitious festival, comPassion began in earnest Friday night, with composer John Muehleisen’s modern passion, “Pieta.”

The word “Pieta,” Muehleisen points out, is usually only said in reference to Michaelangelo’s great sculpture, but in fact, the root meaning is “pity.” Only recently, writes the composer, has the word taken on a negative context, so his intention in this piece is to retrieve the older meanings of the word: compassion, mercy.

But before these ideas make an appearance, he obviously thought some drama was needed, because the choir’s entrance ranks among the most chilling ever devised.

The knock comes from behind us; an irregular beat at first, something striking wood. Not a wood block, but something higher pitched. Its sound slowly comes forward, now accompanied with chimes, like church bells, and the slow drone of bass voices.

The choir shuffles in slowly, then, near the end, the piece of wood enters and you see it’s a percussionist, hammering a wooden piece of a cross, with a mallet, and the symbolism is clear.

This festival features musical passion plays in many different forms, both old (Bach’s masterpiece comes later this week), and new (Muehleisen’s comes along with two more, one from Conspirare’s artistic director Craig Hella Johnson, and a post-modern telling from the Balliett brothers).

The source material for the modern passion varies wildly. In “Pieta” there are stirring letters the novelist Rudyard Kipling received from his son who was stationed near the trenches in WWI, there are sections from the New Testament, quotes from Martin Luther King, and words from the eulogy given for Matthew Shepard.

These texts seem to bounce us around a little on the page, and on paper, the concept of linking 20th Century lives to the crucifixion of Jesus (which takes up much of this work) doesn’t seem fully formed.

Ignore the program, however, and we have a musical journey, whose journey really transports the audience somewhere. The music too is something of a collage, with borrowed hymns working alongside Muehleisen’s own original-and very vibrant-brand of modernism.

The small ensemble of musicians, on oboe, organ, vibraphone and timpani, are employed to paint a variety of dark colors, and the vibraphone (played by Tom Burritt) was especially deft at delivering these enigmatic motifs.

Soloists Ross Hauck (tenor) and Nicole Greenidge Joseph (soprano) gave powerful, operatic performances. Joseph often found deep wells of emotion in the quietest moments, often sections where she sings wordless lines.

There were some other wonderful theatrics. A separate balcony choir (the Conspirare youth choir’s chamber ensemble, led by Nina Revering) made for an exaggerated stereo effect, acting as sort of unseen mystical voices. The treble choir made a searing effect during a middle section focused on the crucifixion.

Something about that long (and grim) middle section threatens to bog the entire piece down, but luckily the mood improves before all is lost, as the music lightens.

And the finale is an interesting departure. Not Muehleisen’s own music, but a hymn, which the audience is asked to sing.

There were many striking moments in this work. Notably MLK’s words on how to treat an enemy, and the torturous Kipling letters, and the writer’s subsequent writings on war and loss. It’s unfortunate the dense inner section is so disconnected from their urgency.

Conspirare, under conductor Craig Hella Johnson, were powerful and on point as ever. Let’s hope their vocal chords hold up just as well as this festival continues.