After months of rigorous rehearsal and concerts in Venice and Florence which bolstered our confidence, the St. James’s Choir arrived in Rome polished and prepared to sing at St. Peter’s and the Pantheon. As our bus lumbered into the Eternal City the evening of June 29, I was immediately struck by its beauty. Perhaps my expectations had been lowered by jaded travelers, but Rome took my breath away, much like Paris did the first time. Rome is a big city, but I don’t know anywhere else on earth you can get ancient history, charming tree-lined streets with enticing cafes,
countless museums, art-filled churches, splendid fountains, jaw-dropping architecture, world-class shopping, and an opportunity to sing at one of the most famous churches in the world?
Sunday morning June 30 began bright and early with stops the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Coliseum. I had to pinch myself that I was going to see these Roman highlights in person, not just view them on a screen or book.
The Trevi Fountain
The fountain was built at the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct. It was common for popes to build elaborate fountains marking the site. It is believed the fountain received the name Trevi because it is located at the center of three (tre) streets (vie): Via De’ Crocicchi, Via Poli and Via Delle Muratte.
The Spanish Steps
Built between 1723-25, these steps connect the Piazza di Spagna of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See and the Trinita dei Monti church, both at the top of the steep hill. Purported to be the widest in all of Europe, they were a magnet back in the day for the “beautiful people” of Rome and beyond to gather. Today they remain a delightful spot to people-watch. These steps have been featured in numerous films over the years, my favorite being Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, it is the largest amphitheater in the world. Stating the obvious, a lifetime of seeing photos and movies of this ancient structure is no substitute for walking through it. Truly, I was moved despite thinking I was going to see just another tourist trap.
At one point in history a common belief was that Christians were martyred in the coliseum. In 1744 Pope Benedict XIV erected 14 crosses around the coliseum representing Christ’s Stations of the Cross and began Good Friday’s tradition to remember those Christians. Today whether Romans were actually killed there because of their belief in Christ is debated; nevertheless, the Pope still leads the faithful throngs on Good Friday through the Stations of the Cross.
Again these brief encounters added more fuel to my fire to return to Rome and Italy. Too quickly we were whisked away to St. Peter’s Basilica and our appointment with choral history, at least in the annals of the St. James’s Choir.
St. Peter’s Basilica
After enduring long lines and successfully clearing security gates that would make the TSA proud, we entered the Basilica and were greeted with a sight that seemed like God smiling upon us.
Men in suits, looking like the Italian Secret Service, ushered us through the various waiting areas, including this chapel below.
At last our moment had come, and we filed into the choir loft behind the organist. We exchanged looks with each other, acknowledging the gravitas of the situation. It was a surreal moment to cherish for a lifetime. The only other time I felt like that was waiting on my father’s arm to walk down the church aisle on my wedding day.
Our repertoire for this mass was
Hymn to a Virgin by Benjamin Britten
Christe adoremus te by Claudio Monteverdi
Sicut Cervus (click to listen to our performance) by G.P. du Palestrina
Da Pacem Domino by Arvo Pärt
Jubilate Deo (click to listen to our performance) by Giovanni Gabrieli
The mass was conducted entirely in Italian and without a printed program, making it difficult for us to know what was to happen next. At one point near the end (according to the organist who interpreted for Mark), the priest thanked our choir and told us we had “shortened the distance between God and Man.” I couldn’t imagine higher praise.
After we finished, we had a few moments for picture time
before we headed outside to the Square
What a wonderful way to celebrate after such a moving experience, perhaps the choral equivalent of a dance in the end zone after a touchdown.
The next day we had a full agenda again. We were to sing at the Pantheon at noon,
so we arrived early enough to sight-see and shop in the vicinity. The Pantheon is the oldest surviving intact ancient Roman structure. It’s a marvel in engineering with its unsupported coffered concrete dome.
The occulus in the center is the main source of light in the structure; rain water drains through a hole in the floor. Shortly after the fall of Rome, the temple was consecrated as a Christian building, thus sparing it from the invading and looting barbarians.
We sang our last concert in front of this beautiful altar
and with bittersweet emotions we concluded with the Battle of Jericho
After the concert we boarded the bus for our 2:30 tour of the Vatican Museums. There, along with 30,000 other visitors, we saw gallery after gallery of ancient art owned by the Church. It was worth the heat and cramped quarters to see the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s breathtaking ceiling
once, but given a choice I would not brave the throngs at 2:30 in the afternoon again. Should you decide to visit, get a tour guide and do your homework on the least-crowded time to visit.
As much as I have enjoyed re-living these glorious days in Rome, it’s time to bid farewell. I pray that each of you has a similar opportunity in your life to spend it with people of substance, in a setting that enhances your appreciation of God’s earthly and divine creation. I must thank my family for their patience and understanding as I rushed off to choir rehearsals, spent quality home time with my black music binder, and otherwise let things go around the house in the name of musical preparation. To my wonderful altos, especially Heather Jones, Liz Nance and Susan Mellott: you are the BEST. And to Anne Daniel: we did it! Last, but certainly not least, cheers to Mark Whitmire
for organizing this trip, selecting the awe-inspiring music, cold-calling St. Peter’s to arrange for our performance, enduring rehearsals that will not be recounted here, and having the patience of a saint to shepherd this awesome group through six performances in five cities of Italian wonder.
I sign off, leaving you with one more fabulous recording, The Battle of Jericho, which we sang at the end of our performance at Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Ricci in Florence. Arrividerci!
July 15, 2013