December 17, 2015, Tuesday — A Vatican-Russian Concert
There was a remarkable “ecumenical” concert in Rome this evening at 8:30 p.m. in the Apse of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, often called “the Mother and Head of all churches in Rome and in the World” because it is the oldest and ranks first among the five Papal Basilicas of the world and the four Major Basilicas of Rome.
The concert, called “Ut Unum Sint: Musica Sacra d’Oriente e d’Occidente” (“That They May All Be One: Sacred Music of the East and of the West”) was entirely choral, without instruments.
It was presented by the Choir of the Pope (the Sistine Chapel Choir, directed by Italian Maestro Massimo Palombella) and by the Choir of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow (directed by Russian Maestro Alexei Puzakov).
The location was significant — the Papal Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome and the official episcopal seat of the Bishop of Rome, the Roman Pontiff.
Present was Cardinal Kurt Koch, the head of the Holy See’s Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, as well as the Russian ambassador to the Holy See and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The day, too, was significant: the 79th birthday of Pope Francis.
A Russian Orthodox priest who helped to introduce the concert said that he saw the event as a gift to Pope Francis for his birthday.
Most striking was the way the two choirs worked and sang together.
The Sistine Chapel Choir began with three pieces in Latin:
1) O Sapientia, a Gregorian chant
2) Sanctus, by Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina (1525-1594)
3) Agnus Dei I, also by Palestrina
The Sistine Chapel Choir then sat down and the Russian Patriarchate Choir took their place.
Singing in Russian, the Orthodox choir performed:
4) Christmas Concert, by Nikolai Vedernikov (1928-present), a hymn in praise of the birth of Christ
5) Praise the Name of the Lord, by Hilarion Alfeyev (1966-present), a hymn in praise of the Lord “because his mercy endures forever”
6) In Your Kingdom, also by Hilarion Alfeyev, a hymn based on the Beatitudes, in which the singers ask the Lord to remember them when He comes into his Kingdom, and then sing the Beatitudes
7) Great Doxology, also by Hilarion Alfeyev, a hymn glorifying God greatness and holiness and asking Him to have mercy on all men
8) The Hospitality of the Lord, by Andrej Mikita (1959-present), another hymn on praise of the Logos, who is to be glorified. This hymn included a marvelous solo by soprano Naira Asatrjan, whose voice was one of the clearest and purest I have ever heard.
But it was what happened next that was most surprising.
The Vatican’s choir, the Capella Sistina choir, joined the Russian choir on the risers, intermixing with the Patriarchal choir.
And together they sang two pieces, one in Russian (meaning that the Sistine Chapel choir had to learn the piece in Russian) and one in Latin (meaning that the Patriarchal choir had to learn the piece in Latin).
These two pieces were:
9) We Praise You, by Dmitri Bortnjanski (1751-1825), a hymn in Russian in praise of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which concludes with the lines “My your mercy be always with us, you are our hope, we will not be confounded in eternity”
10) Tu es Petrus, again by Palestrina, a hymn whose Latin text reads: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her, and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
It was an extraordinary experience to hear the Russian choir singing these words in Latin, alongside or even, more correctly, mixed together with, the Sistine Chapel choir, singing these same words after just having sung a hymn in Russian.
About 300 people attended the concert. Metropolitan Hilarion, whose compositions were performed, was not present.
The concert was so striking and moving that it seemed it might be worthwhile to bring it to the United States or to other countries.
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.