The DaPonte String Quartet is touring with its annual Easter program, and having started its journey on Wednesday in Thomaston, the ensemble presented the first of two Portland performances in its series at the Jewish Museum on Thursday.

The Jewish Museum may seem an odd venue for an Easter program, not least because the museum’s concerts take place in the sanctuary of the Etz Chaim synagogue, and the quartet’s principal work, Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross,” is theologically at odds with the synagogue’s normal business.

When I asked Gary Berenson, the synagogue’s rabbi, about this – he attended the concert and seemed enthralled by the performance – he suggested thinking of the concert as a museum event, not a synagogue event. And indeed, it could be argued that the execution of a Jewish sectarian leader by the brutal forces of the Roman Occupation qualifies as a Jewish historical event, of sorts.

Or you could just chalk it up to ecumenical bridge-building.

In any case, the Haydn is a big work that posed unusual challenges for its composer. In 1786, Haydn was commissioned to write music for a service at the Cathedral of Cádiz, in Spain – not an unusual request, in itself, although the format of the service, performed during Lent, put important constraints on the work’s character.

The service was built, as the title suggests, around the seven statements, as reported variously in the four Gospels, that Jesus made as he awaited death: from “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” to “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” After a brief musical introduction, the Bishop of Cádiz offered a sermon on the first statement, then left the pulpit and kneeled at the altar as the first of Haydn’s seven new sonatas was performed. This was repeated for each statement, with a vigorous finale, meant to describe the earthquake that marked Jesus’s death, to close the score.

The difficulty was that all seven sonatas, each meant to last about 10 minutes, were to be slow movements. Haydn worried that this lack of tempo variety would become tiresome, but he needn’t have. In the years following the performance of the original orchestral score, the work proved so popular that he made arrangements for string quartet, piano and choir (with an added German text). Today, the quartet version is the most frequently performed,

Performances of the quartet these days sometimes include staging elements, recordings of sermons by, among others, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or texts linking the seven statements to contemporary issues. The DaPonte players avoided that, giving a simple, direct and transfixing account of this hourlong score, with Myles Jordan, its cellist, reading the statements before each movement. Instead of focusing on pure, tonal beauty in these slow movements – surely a temptation – they allowed for some timbral grit, to give the music emotional and, to some extent, pictorial weight.

On the whole, the score is meant to be meditative rather than pictorial, but Haydn included imagery nonetheless. Each movement, for example, is underpinned with a steady, repeating tone, sometimes played chordally, sometimes by just one instrument. It is clearly meant to evoke the passing of the moments and hours, and it gives these moments a sense of understated but palpable urgency. For the statement, “I thirst,” Haydn provided a dry pizzicato, and for “It is finished,” the insistently descending violin theme suggests slow release.

On the program’s second half, which was devoted fully to music by Bach, Joshua Miller was the baritone soloist in a graceful account of “Wenn Trost und Hülf Ermangeln Muss” (“If Comfort and Aid Be Lacking”) from Cantata 117, and the soprano and radio host Suzanne Nance gave a lovely reading of “Erbarme Dich” (“Have Mercy”), from the St. Matthew Passion.

Both soloists joined forces for an amusing deftly balanced (if occasionally overly cute) rendering of Bach’s uncharacteristically folksy “Peasant Cantata,” bringing the program to a wholly secular conclusion.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn


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