It's probably safe to say that the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has never felt like church more than it did Wednesday night. Lights in the Perelman Theater were turned down low for the opening of the group's 32nd season. A kind-of preacher quoted scripture in between movements of the single piece on the program, played by the Orion String Quartet. The talk was mostly of Christ.
PCMS's classical-smart audience no doubt has its theological leanings, but at least some of it considers its religion to be Music and views Christmas mostly as a good day to find an open table in Chinatown. Still, the piece in question can withstand a sacred gloss, and it got it.
Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross can — and should — be experienced on a purely musical level. The "preacher" on hand, though, was musicologist Robert Levin, who made a good case in extended remarks to the audience that to listen to the work divorced from faith is to render the experience incomplete.
Eyes can be opened to the meaning of the three lilies in Northern Renaissance painting (the trinity), just as ears opened in the Haydn when Levin preceded each movement with its corresponding last phrase uttered by Christ on the cross. One-to-one relationships were easy to hear, of course — the earthquake ending that had the Orion generating a disturbance straining its limits.
But the more interesting aspect of Haydn's epic winged sonic altarpiece is how he plays against type. Where sometimes you expect fury, Haydn gives you peace. He toggles between pain and joy, for sure. But generally the character of the music is Haydn's take on Christ as a manifestation of nobility and purity. He uses repetition, presenting a set of phrases and then repeating it, and the effect over an hour or so is hypnotic and transporting. When Christ gives up his soul near the end, the music, an unusual blend of majesty and fragility, indeed seems to escape the room and take all breath with it.
Whether this string quartet transcription of the piece (by Haydn himself) has all possible impact is a personal question. Fans of the orchestral or oratorio versions might have felt short-changed. I did. The fuller orchestral and choral palettes open the piece up to nature, to paradise, and into an exposition of Christ's goodness better felt than told. But the Orion was admirable, seeking to sculpt sound with variable dynamics and textures, if not always with the greatest technical assurance.
What did it all mean to a nonbeliever? Music is full of fairy tales, and luxuriating in them does not hinge on believing in them. What's remarkable about this Haydn is that the world it creates, at least for an hour, is miracle enough to test the unfaithful.