Those of us who attended the Nashville Sinfonietta’s performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on Saturday night knew we were in for something unusual the moment we filed into Ingram Hall. The stage was darkened and filled with empty chairs, and seven tall panels, located in a semicircle in the back, were bathed in a deep crimson – the blood of Christ? Surely, a dramatic ritual was at hand.
Nashville Sinfonietta’s performance of Haydn’s 18th-century masterpiece was indeed theatrical, but it was also deeply meditative and satisfyingly original. Dean Whiteside, the ensemble’s music director, wanted to capture something of the ritualistic feel of the work’s 1786 premiere at the Cádiz Cathedral in Spain – the cathedral’s nave had been draped in black. Similarities to that original performance, however, more or less ended with the lighting effects.
Rather than presenting a sectarian rendition of the work, Whiteside wanted a performance that imparted a universal message of suffering, hope and redemption. So he commissioned Rick Hilles, an assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt University, to write seven new poems that took Christ’s final words as the starting point for a more personal, secular reflection. (Hilles’ poetry will be featured on Connotation Press’ website in October.)
One suspects Haydn would have approved of this approach, since rearranging and reinterpreting Seven Last Words is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Haydn himself rearranged the original orchestral score for chorus and string quartet. Later, he approved a piano arrangement that had been done by one of his students. In modern times, music directors have felt free to substitute poetry for sermons (one recent performance in New York City included everything from political statements to the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti). All of these options can work, provided they capture the spirit of the original.
In that respect, Hilles’ poetry proved to be a good match. His poetry, though ostensibly secular, was often decorated with religious symbolism and imagery. The poems also ingeniously incorporated the final sayings attributed to Christ. “My God, My God! – Why have you forsaken me?” is uttered in the fourth poem by the mother of a young man lost to violence. In the sixth poem, a woman who fears she is about to die on an operating table gasps, “It is finished.”
At the premiere of Seven Last Words in Cádiz, a bishop delivered the sermons and fell to his knees before the altar during the musical interludes. In lieu of a bishop, Nashville Sinfonietta turned to Michael Hime, a senior lecturer in music literature at the Blair School of Music, to read the poetry. Hime came across as a kind of omniscient narrator – a Haydnesque version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town stage manager – who guided us through the story as he meditated on mortality. Hime, with his resonant baritone voice, gave a nuanced and dramatic reading.
Seven Last Words has always struck me as some of the most Handelian music that Haydn ever wrote. The score is dramatic, urgent and often colorfully pictorial. But it also sounds overly courtly and stylized to the contemporary ear. It is music of its time, and as such it doesn’t always sound comfortable when paired anachronistically with contemporary verse. The idea of following Haydn’s fifth sonata, with its dry, pizzicato strings suggesting Christ’s saying, “I thirst,” with the story of a surgery patient named Therese seemed like a bit of a non sequitur.
But once the music started, one didn’t mind, since the performances were so uniformly strong. And that was hardly surprising, since Nashville Sinfonietta is a virtuoso band. Its personnel includes some of the finest instrumentalists in Nashville – Blair violin professors Carolyn Huebl (concertmaster) and Cornelia Heard (principal second violin), Nashville Symphony musicians Keith Nicholas (principal cello) and Roger Wiesmeyer (principal oboe), among others. Whiteside led these players in a performance that was remarkable both for its stylishness and precision.
Nashville Sinfonietta’s concert was Blair’s first performance of the season. The quality of the performance bodes well for the rest the term, and it also sets an extremely high bar.