February 6, 2016, Saturday — The Passion that Looms Over the Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill Meeting in Cuba

The “Diplomacy of Music”

I just received an email bringing my attention to an article by Dr. Terry Mattingly, an OrthodoxEasterVigilPopeFrancis10days scholar and writer who edits the popular website. Here is the link.

The Mattingly article quotes extensively from my letter of yesterday — thank you, Dr. Mattingly.

The article contains a link to a video which shows the world premiere performance in Moscow on March 27, 2007 of Metropolitan Hilarion’s The Passion According to St. Matthew.

The same concert was repeated in Rome two nights later, in an event I helped to organize.

So please visit the video, even if only for a few seconds, to get a sense of the music, its passion, its sorrow, its serenity in the face of suffering.

Mattingly’s article reaches the correct conclusion: there is a “back story” to this upcoming historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, a “back story” which is virtually unknown.

That “back story” involves — among other encounters and events — a series of concerts that Russian singers and musicians presented to audiences in Moscow, Rome, Washington, New York, Boston (Massachusetts), Dallas (Texas), and other cities (including in Ukraine).

These concerts presented music which shows that, despite all the horrors of the past century, the mythical “Russian soul” still endures.

That “back story” involves music, yes — but much more than music. It involves courage, hope, and faith.

It involves the dedication of Russian Orthodox singers and musicians who flew from Moscow to Rome to present their music, the expression of their deepest aspirations, to a Roman public on March 29, 2007.

They had performed on March 27 in Moscow, boarded a flight to Rome on March 28, slept a few hours that evening in Rome, rehearsed the concert on the morning of the 29th, then performed on the evening of the 29th.

The singers and musicians courageously fought their weariness.

But as I watched the concert that evening in March, one Russian woman in the choir began to sway, then collapsed, exhausted, halfway through the concert. She had fainted.

This is the most indelible memory I retain from that concert. A Russian woman who sang literally until she could sing no more.

She was helped off-stage by her fellow choir members, who then returned to continue singing.

Strange things occurred in the lead-up to that concert, things I have never written about until now.

The idea for the concert emerged in November of 2006, just a few weeks after Hilarion began to compose the music in August of 2006, when melodies “came into his mind” as he was driving a car between Vienna and Budapest. He was then the Russian Orthodox bishop in the central European Russian Orthodox diocese headed by those two cities.

The proposal to perform the music in Rome at the end of March, during the days just before Easter in the spring of 2007 — in a year when Easter fell on the same date in both the Eastern and Western calendars — came in an email which arrived at the end of November. I was in Istanbul, where Pope Benedict XVI had gone to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew. Though a journalist, I agreed to try to help organize the concert. There would be only four months to prepare everything — December, January, February, March…

I entered into the whirlwind.

The first meeting was with Alexei Puzakov, the conductor of the Tretyakov Gallery Choir of Moscow, and a friend of Hilarion from their teenage years.

Puzakov, whom I had never met, was to come to Rome to meet me and choose the location for the concert.

I was to go to St. Bartholomew’s Church, situated on an island in the Tiber river called the Isola Tibertina. I would find Alexei dressed as a conductor, in a black suit and a bow tie, and introduce myself.

I went to St. Bartholomew’s at 6 p.m. but was surprised to find the church dark and empty. It was closed. I phoned Leonid Sevastianov, my contact in Moscow.

“Hey,” I said. “There’s no one here. It’s all dark. The church is locked.”

“Perhaps the hour is wrong,” Leonid said. “Wait an hour longer. Until 7 pm.”

So I waited until 7 p.m. It was cold, and dark.

No one came.

An auspicious start to the enterprise, I thought.

I started to walk back through the streets of Rome toward the Vatican. In December, when the shortest day of the year comes, it is dark in Rome before 5 p.m.

For no reason I can explain, I decided to change my course.

I crossed into Trastevere.

“I’ll stop for a moment at Santa Maria in Trastevere,” I thought.

I walked into the back of the church, the oldest one in the world dedicated to Mary.

It was full. The Community of San’Egidio was having an evening of song and prayer.

I heard singing.

The words were in… Russian.

“Hmmm,” I thought.

I walked around the back of the church, then down the left aisle.

The singing stopped.

I saw a man dressed in a black suit wearing a black bow-tie.

He was standing just off to the left of the altar.

I walked up to him.

He looked at me, not recognizing me, since we had never met.

“Alexei,” I said.

“Bob?” he replied.

“Yes,” I said. “Good to meet you… Sorry I’m late.”

The next day, we met and climbed together to the dome of St. Peter’s, he from Russia, me from America, struggling to understand one another.

We looked out over the ancient city, and down upon the Paul VI Audience Hall.

“That would be the place for the concert, perhaps,” I said, not knowing whether we might receive permission to use it, or not.

“It is very big,” Alexei said. “The acoustics…”

“Well, yes,” I said, “it holds 7,000 people. Perhaps it would have poor acoustics…” I paused. “Well, there is an Auditorium on via della Conciliazione.” I pointed out over the piazza to the large street. “It’s down there, toward the end of the street. Not far from the Vatican. It’s specifically designed for concerts. We could try there.”

“Yes,” Alexei said. “Let’s try.”

We walked down from the dome, out of St. Peter’s, across the piazza, and down the street to the Auditorium. We went inside to the administration area, and found the woman in charge of bookings.

“We’d like to book the Auditorium for a concert in the spring,” I said to her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That will be impossible.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we are already booked solid for the entire upcoming year,” she said. “We do not have a single free night.”

“Oh no,” I said, looking with alarm at Alexei. “Please, could you just make a check for us, just to be sure?”

“I know we are all booked up,” she said, “but ok, for you I’ll make a check.”

And she opened a large register, and began to run her finger down the side of the page.

“January,” she said, running her finger down the columns. “All booked. February — all booked. March — all booked…”

Suddenly, her finger stopped.

“Hmmm,” she said. She ran her finger horizontally across the page. “Well, that’s strange.”

“What is strange?” I asked.

“Well, I could have sworn that every day was booked, but it seems…” She stopped and ran her finger across the columns once more. “It seems that we do have one date open. There is one night available. It’s at the end of March.”

“What night is that?” I asked.

“March 29,” she said. “March 29 is free.”

I looked at Alexei.

“When is the concert in Moscow?” I asked him.

“It’s on the 27th,” Alexei said.

“Could you perform on the 27th, take a flight on the 28th, and perform here on the 29th?” I asked.

“It might be tiring,” he said, “but we could do it.”

“Ok.” I turned to the woman. “Ok, we’ll take March 29th.”

“Well,” she said, “you will have to make a deposit to keep the date.”

“How much will that be?” I asked.

She made some calculations. “It will be 4,000 euros.”

I had applied to a foundation for grant support, but the board of the foundation was not due to meet until the end of February. But if I waited until the end of February, I would lose the reservation.

“Can we see the hall?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Alexei and I walked through the offices and into the lobby in front of the concert hall, then into the hall.

Alexei looked carefully around the hall, and nodded to me.

“The acoustics will be very good here,” he said.

“Ok,” I said. “Then let’s take it. We’ll have the concert here.” He nodded. “But we have been pretty lucky,” I said. “She thought the whole year was booked, and then she found that just one night was still free. That’s pretty lucky.”

“Not lucky,” Alexei said. “Providence.” And he smiled.

I went back to the booking office, filled out the forms, and put the downpayment on a personal credit card that I had kept empty for just such an emergency. And so we booked the hall.

Standing-room Only

There followed three months of work.

We designed programs, prepared posters, organized flights and rooms for the choir and orchestra, met with Vatican officials to explain what we were doing, asked for cooperation and support from everyone.

There were many ups and downs, many problems solved, but some never solved.

We had thought we would sell tickets. We billed the concert as the “Roman premiere” of The Passion According to St. Matthew by Hilarion Alfeyev.

But few people knew who Hilarion was, and the ticket sales were slow.

In fact, a week before the concert, there had been so little “buzz” surrounding the event that, when we checked, we found that we had sold only 22 tickets.

I was very worried. What if the Russians came to Rome, and they went out on the stage to perform their concert, and there were only 22 people present?

Those of us organizing the concert agreed the prognosis was grim.

The last weekend before the concert, we went on a train to Assisi, city of St. Francis. There, we went to the tomb of St. Francis, and said this prayer: “St. Francis, please intercede for us, so that the gift that the Russians are bringing will be received. Please help us to fill the concert hall. Amen.”

We went back to Rome, and back to work.

I went to Sister Giovanna in the Vatican Press Office on the Monday before the concert, which was to be on Thursday night.

“I’m in trouble,” I said.

“What sort of trouble?” she asked.

I explained.

Her face grew worried.

“That would not be good for our relations with the Russians, if the concert hall is empty,” she said. “I will see what I can do. I will contact some of the communities of nuns in the city. If they come, can they enter for free?”

“Yes,” I said. “For free.”

So we did not sell any more tickets, though we continued to imagine that we needed to keep track of the seating for various dignitaries, Vatican monsignors, ambassadors, and others.

I went to other friends, and asked them to invite their families and friends to come to the concert: to invite oratorio societies from their high schools, or students studying Russian, or prayer groups interested in the message of Our Lady of Fatima.

“I need your help,” I said. “We want the concert to be received by the people of Rome.”

The night of the concert, Leonid lifted an enormous image of Christ to hang as a backdrop behind the musicians.

And the people began to enter, dozens, hundreds, eventually filling the entire hall.

In fact, there are folding doors which can make the hall hold only 800 people, but we, unwittingly, had not asked for those doors to be closed, so we had a hall of 1,700 seats.

And the entire hall was filled, every seat: nuns, Italian students, Russian Orthodox families living in Italy, and a number of cardinals and ambassadors.

In the end, at the last minute, the concert was received.

The Music and its Meaning

Not everything can be put into words.

That is why I would ask readers to take 30 or 60 seconds to listen to view the video of the concert (link).

This music expresses the longing of the Russian people for the good, the true, the beautiful, the transcendent, the holy.

Despite all that the Russians have passed through, all the gulags of the past century, all the officious commissars who belittled and humiliated and murdered Christian believers, the Russian spirit has remained.

The Russian soul has remained.

And it is a miracle that it is so.

A miracle that can only be attributed to the protection of a sublime spiritual power, invisible but unconquerable.

It is the power of faith.

The power of hope.

Please Note: The Vatican has asked for the prayers of all Catholics, and of all Christians, for the success of this meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow and the Bishop of Rome.


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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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