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Salvatore Basile on Perfoming at St. Peter's Square

5th November 2010

St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir (foot of steps), ready to sing! Photo credit: Osservatore Romano

Without a doubt, the highlight of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir’s trip to Rome was going to be its attendance at the Udienza Generale—the weekly Papal audience that takes place each Wednesday, weather permitting, in St. Peter’s Square.  However, things quickly ramped up to become still more memorable.

For those who haven’t had the experience (which includes this writer), a Papal audience is marked by good-natured chaos.  Starting before 8:00 in the morning, streams of people descend on St. Peter’s, some clutching tickets which promise a better view of the action, others prepared to stand in the back and view it all on Jumbotrons.  Of course, everyone goes through metal detectors.  Then the entire crowd prepares to wait, simultaneously shivering from the morning breeze and broiling from the direct sun, until the Popemobile drives in at 10:30.  Cathedral Choir members showed up vested—it’s one of the charms of Rome that forty adults can traipse through the streets in magenta robes without provoking even a raised eyebrow from city residents.  And we were lucky, having been given wonderful seats right up on the level of the Papal platform.

However, there was going to be the matter of singing . . . not a guaranteed thing.

To explain: During each Papal audience, relays of priests, each speaking a different language, step forward to announce the various groups attending that day.  For musical organizations intending to honor the Pontiff with song, we were told that there’s a specific protocol: at the mention of your name, jump instantly to your feet and plunge into the music; even a second’s delay might cause the priest to move on to the next name on the list.  We prepared as best we could, before this trip, by rehearsing our leap-to-attention moment and launching into an arrangement of “Tu es Petrus” that the Pope especially liked.  He had heard that very piece, and had complimented the music, during his 2008 visit to New York.  But nothing could be taken for granted.

However, about twenty minutes before the audience was to begin a Vatican official asked us, as we were intending to sing, if we’d mind moving into a special section all our own, directly in the Pope’s sight.  No, we didn’t mind.

For that matter, would it be possible to provide one or two selections before the audience began?  Yes, it was possible.

The rest of the morning was one big smile.  At his entrance, the Pontiff had the Popemobile stop in order to give the Cathedral Choir an extra wave.  The audience progressed: we leaped up right on cue as the English-speaking priest announced “The Cathedral of”—even though he was announcing the wrong cathedral.  (Chuckles from the audience.)  A few cathedrals later, he did announce St. Patrick’s; we leaped; we sang.

It must have worked out well, as the Vatican official came by at the end of the ceremony to ask if we’d mind providing some more music.  Not at all.  (There was one other choir there from Russia.  The two groups alternated selections, dragging a microphone back and forth in a battle-of-the-bands atmosphere.  At the end, they invited the Cathedral Choir to visit them in Moscow.)

This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day.

Written by Salvatore Basile, author of Fifth Avenue Famous: The Extraordinary Story of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

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