All else seemed but an earthly prologue by Sunday afternoon's massive outdoor papal Mass on the Parkway. The logistical hurdles, pope tchotchkes silly and sincere, the queasy police-state feeling that gripped the city starting Friday - all was set aside as the Philadelphia Orchestra and a chorus of about 500 laid down a soundtrack of contemplation and triumph for an in-person and online audience of perhaps a million or more.
The orchestra, led by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, played Beethoven and Brahms as the papal motorcade arrived at Eakins Oval with the Philadelphia Museum of Art the backdrop, and a canopy of cool gray skies over the crowd.
The production was not without its bumps. Sometimes the orchestra had to cut off in midpiece to accommodate the pace of the service. But for the most part the mélange of liturgy, orchestral music, choir with organ, and simple chant dressed up this Mass in the kind of aural robes and ribbons no one is likely to encounter anytime again soon.
Nézet-Séguin donated his services for both the Mass and Saturday night's concert, and the Philadelphia Orchestra Association waived its fees for sending the ensemble, an orchestra spokeswoman said.
The orchestra and its music directors have rubbed elbows with popes before. Pope Pius XII received Eugene Ormandy and the orchestra at Vatican City in 1958. As music director in 1986, Riccardo Muti conducted the orchestra and chorus of Italy's state-run radio and TV in Cherubini's Mass in A Major for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
Afterward, Muti kissed the pope's ring but apparently didn't break a sweat. "To direct before a pope isn't any different from other concerts," he said.
Wolfgang Sawallisch was friends with an amateur Bavarian pianist named Joseph Alois Ratzinger, who, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, performed the memorial Funeral Mass for Sawallisch's wife, Mechthild, in 1999.
The current pope startled classical music aficionados a few months ago when, listing his favorite classical artists, he plucked some inside-baseball names (pianist Clara Haskil, conductor Hans Knappertsbusch).
But also Mozart - the "Et incarnatus est" from the Mass in C Minor, which, he said, "lifts you to God!" But there was no Mozart on the Parkway. His Ave verum corpus had been planned, but was never played because Communion didn't go as long as it might have, said orchestra vice president Jeremy Rothman.
Another piece rehearsed but not played was one in which Andrea Bocelli, who was a soloist Saturday night, had planned to join as just another chorister. He appeared anyway - taking Communion with the chorus.
The orchestra, nestled between seated guests in the front and the long stretch of a crowd on the Parkway, sometimes sounded relegated to background status. But after the Mass as the crowd dispersed, you could at least have the rare pleasure of walking right up to the orchestra and hearing the ensemble play the most stirring music of the event - the finale of Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, the "Organ Symphony."
Much needed next is a civic discussion on whether the Mass and a papal presence for 36 hours was worth essentially shutting down the second-most-populous downtown in the United States. But to a certain flock on the Parkway on Sunday afternoon, the answer was perfectly clear, having just arrived on the wings of song.