Pope in peace concert

Vatican invites rabbis, Muslim clerics for concert featuring Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

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ROME -- In an unprecedented Vatican concert, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, led by a Jewish conductor and backed by Muslim singers, last night played before a frail, onetime Polish war survivor who now heads the world's largest Christian Church.

Pier Paolo Cito. Associated Press
Seen in background at left, Pope John Paul II, sits next to Emeritus Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, Rome's mosque Imam, during the "Reconciliation Concert" performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican yesterday. The Pontiff hailed the "universal message of music'' at this concert aimed at encouraging reconciliation among faiths in a world torn by religious violence.
Click photo for larger image.

The concert, a celebration of Karol Wojtyla's 25 years as Pope John Paul II, attempted with music what words have failed to do: end warfare and tumult among members of the three religions that sprang from the biblical patriarch Abraham.

"The history of relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims is characterized by lights and shadows, and unfortunately, has known painful moments," the pope told 7,000 people, hundreds from Pittsburgh, who filled the Pope Paul VI auditorium for the concert. "Today we feel pressing need of a sincere reconciliation among the believers in the one God."

John Paul, betraying the infirmity that has reached him at 83 years, was wheeled into the concert on a special platform chair and sat through the 72-minute concert, sometimes resting his head on his left hand.

Gilbert Levine, who headed the symphony in John Paul's home city of Krakow, Poland, personally suggested the concert in a meeting with the pope last year, and selected the Pittsburgh Symphony to perform it.

Musicians premiered a brass-and-voice piece called "Abraham," by American composer John Harbison. Then they delivered three movements of Gustav Mahler's thunderous "Resurrection Symphony" as John Paul sat at stage left, flanked by Muslim, Catholic and Jewish clergymen. At concert's end, he spoke haltingly in Italian.

Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press
Pope John Paul II sits next to Emeritus Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, left, and Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, Imam of Rome's mosque, during the "Reconciliation Concert" in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

"Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot accept that the Earth be afflicted by hate and that humanity be wracked by wars without end. We must find in ourselves the courage of peace," the Pope said.

A 'must' event

Singing were members of Pittsburgh's Mendelssohn Choir, the Krakow chorus, the London Chorus and the Ankara State Polyphonic Choir.

"Music can go where words don't go," Levine said of the concert. "I've been told this is one of the great points in the arc of his pontificate." Ill health has canceled dozens of papal events in the past year, Levine said, but "every time they would go over his schedule and take things off, this concert has stayed."

He called last night's concert "one of the great sort of end-pieces" to the career of a pope who is nearing the end of his life.

Harbison met briefly with John Paul yesterday and emerged from his apartment to say that the pope's interest in liturgical music is vast and significant. But he was less certain about music as an antidote to the world's tumult.

"It's going to take miracles," he said.

Symbols of the concert were as vivid as the whirl of publicity that preceded it and as subtle as the Pope John Paul II lapel pin worn at rehearsal by a Muslim choir member from Turkey, the same country from which Mehmet Ali Agca traveled 23 years ago to shoot and nearly kill the pope.

"It is very important and we are very happy," said Sahin Altun, a member of the Ankara chorus. "It is very important for our country. We are very happy to make this music."

The days leading to the concert hummed with small adventures. Musicians and their families braved the famously chaotic Roman traffic, where cars, scooters and pedestrians swarm through a city where traffic is governed less by law than custom.

Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press
Pope John Paul II, is greeted by Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, Imam of Rome's mosque, at the end of the "Reconciliation Concert" , in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

One custom is passing on the right. Another is changing lanes even when there are no lanes left to change to.

"You might think soccer is Italy's national sport," a tour guide told one group. "No. In Italy our national sport is running over pedestrians. We get 500 points for Italians, 600 points for Americans."

Some musicians braved more than Roman traffic to get to the concert.

Rhian Kenny, principal piccolo player, gave birth by caesarean section four weeks ago to Glenys Kenny-Howell. A practicing Catholic, Kenny insisted on making the trip, her infant cradled in her arms and her 7- and 3-year-old daughters Lyndis and Carys in hand.

"If it were just another concert, I wouldn't be going. But it's not another concert. So I'm going," she said before the trip.

To do this, she fought with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to get hold of a birth certificate that hadn't been filed yet, and the baby's passport -- her photo includes her mother's hand propping her up for the camera -- made it to the Kenny-Howell household in Shaler just hours before the flight to Rome lifted off.

St. Peter's feet

Symphony members, who ordinarily have little free time to become tourists, packed a specially arranged tour of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica the day before the concert. Kenny towed her three children along. She wasn't the only musician with a baby in arms on this concert.

"I lost my shoes somewhere in the hotel room, so I had to borrow a pair of my mother's," she said, standing in a freezing courtyard and listening to a tour-guide explain the history of Michelangelo's ceiling frescos. On her feet were a furry-looking bit of footwear she insisted were not slippers.

Kenny and her daughters lined up to rub the feet of the statue of St. Peter inside the basilica. One foot is smooth and toeless from centuries of such devotions. Near the glass sarcophagus that holds the remains of Pope John XXIII, disinterred and moved into the main floor after being declared "blessed," the first step toward sainthood, Kenny contemplated the music she would soon play.

"The pope will be sitting there," she said. And she often weeps during Mahler. "Mahler's symphonies generally do that to me. I rarely make it through without getting close to sobbing."

Outside the basilica, musicians snapped photos of the Swiss Guards who protect the popes.

A contingent of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy left a Saturday morning audience with the pope, some visibly stirred by the encounter.

The group was led through an ornate set of rooms in the pope's fourth-floor apartment, which overlooks St. Peter's Square. One-by-one they were introduced by Bishop Donald Wuerl. The pope said little, offering only a firm handshake, an occasional "yes" or "thank you."

"I said, 'Thank you for being so close to my people,' " said Flora Berkun, who joined her husband, Rabbi Alvin Berkun of Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

Rabbi Berkun told the pope about ongoing Christian-Jewish dialogue in the Pittsburgh Diocese, and mentioned that rabbis routinely teach about Judaism in the Catholic high schools in the diocese.

"I know his eyes brightened when I said what I said," Berkun recalled. "This is the only pope in history who grew up close to Jewish people."

Wuerl said the pope asked him several times how many visitors had come from Pittsburgh for the concert.

"He asked a couple of times," Wuerl said, and expressed delight at the turnout.

The symphony sponsored a tour for patrons, while the Knights of Columbus underwrote the orchestra's travel.

Hoping for progress

The Rev. Donald B. Green, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, thanked the pope for a 1999 Vatican document in which the church moved closer with members of the Lutheran faith and reached agreement on an understanding of justification by faith, a prime tenet of Lutheran belief.

"Five years ago we were able as Lutherans and Catholics to find a basic understanding on doctrine," Green said.

He hopes for closer ties. Closer ties between Catholics and Protestants have been slowed in recent years by conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the Vatican committee that oversees doctrine.

"I'm hoping against hope that Ratzinger will be in the audience," Green said. "To me music speaks to the heart more than the head and can transcend issues of rational or irrational thought -- can unite us in a common spirit."

A sense of common spirit reached its way into the thoughts of three symphony members who spent their first night here touring the Jewish Ghetto, a section of town once walled off by order of an early pope.

Violists Cynthia Busch and Penny Brill, along with orchestra manager Marcie Solomon, walked through La Sinagoga di Lungotevere de Cenci, and examined its catalog of the sufferings their co-religionists endured generations earlier. Across the street from the gates of the ghetto, Pope Leo XII 175 years ago erected a Catholic church where 300 Jews, selected by the Vatican, were forced to attend special sermons every Sunday in hopes they would convert.

In 1986, John Paul II visited the Rome Synagogue, the first pope to do so.

The city's chief rabbi this week invited him to return in May for the congregation's 100th anniversary. The Vatican has not yet replied, because they cannot be sure from day-to-day how John Paul's health will hold up.

The invitation was a powerful symbol of how far relations between Catholics and Jews have advanced since Leo's reign ended in 1829.

The chief rabbis of Rome and Israel were invited to last night's concert.

"This is a very political concert. A very political gesture," Brill said.

"You have to move forward," Busch added.

Solomon, the youngest of the group, slipped into a service at the Rome synagogue last week.

"To hear Hebrew with an Italian accent was, uh, pretty different," she said. "There aren't that many 'O' sounds in Hebrew."

"This is a big vowel town," Busch told her.

'Eat, drink and be Murray'

The trio stopped off for a bite at La Taverna del Ghetto Kosher -- real name, kosher pizza. Busch later visited the Trevi Fountain, a magnificently ornate decoration in the city's heart, where she came across Murray Crewe and his wife, Linda. Crewe was toting a battered, leather trombone case and seeking out a spot. Penny Conner, a symphony flutist, saw him beside the fountain and leaned over an elevated railing.

"Hey! Why do you have your trombone with you?" Conner shouted.

"I'm gonna play," Crewe shouted back.

"You're kidding."

He wasn't.

Crewe, who lives by the mottos, "Eat, drink and be Murray," "Nothing in moderation" and "Every day do something fun and great," was at the Trevi on a mission. On a previous tour, he played at Mahler's grave. This time, he wanted to honor another composer, Respighi, by playing the second movement of his work "Fountains of Rome." The title: "Trevi Fountain."

Crewe picked a corner and as a throng of tourists looked on, pumped out music on his bass trombone. One visitor walked up to the open case nearby and dropped in 10 cents.

"That'll buy me the tip of an ice-cream cone," he said, walking his wife to the nearest gelato stand.

Crewe, who grew up a preacher's kid in Vancouver, Canada, wondered at how John Paul would outlast Mahler's symphony. Vatican protocol holds all concerts to no more than 72 minutes. To fit the time frame, Levine trimmed the program to the first, fourth and fifth movements. But the final movement is an utter blast of music -- loud, forceful, emotional, and all being done within mere feet of the small platform at stage left. The pope was taken by wheelchair up a ramp and sat quietly as the symphony poured out the works.

"We're gonna nail him, but he's been warned," Crewe said.

The pope's approval of works dealing with mortality, he said, impressed him. "I think it's rare that he picked a piece called 'Resurrection' at a time of poor health," he said.

As the concert closed last night, John Paul requested an encore -- an unprecedented act for a papal concert. The symphony struck up the final stanzas of this Mahler "requiem," in which the chorus sings of a soul rising to God. In the back row, as she had feared, Rhian Kenny began to weep.

"Mahler. I guess that's why," she said.

And perhaps the audience?

"Yeah," Kenny said. "Maybe a pope."


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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