March 31st, 2011
31 Mar – Saints of a certain era recommended meditation on the “four last things”: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. Fortunately for me tonight the oratorio -- a sermon with music -- at Chiesa Nuova is about Heaven. This massive church in downtown Rome was founded by Saint Philip Neri (1515 – 1595); he is beloved by Romans because he made a special effort to preach to them on the streets and piazzas, since few were coming to church at the time. The saint was a master of the provocative phrase – for instance: “He who does not go into hell during his lifetime, runs a great risk of going there after his death." It takes something like this to penetrate a crusty Roman heart so a dialog can begin. These nighttime sessions, perfect for people who work all day, would be just what Neri would do today. They are being held not in the main church but in the sacristy building; access is gained through a small side courtyard lit by candles. A quartet of Baroque-era stringed instruments accompanies a baritone who provides musical counterpoint to a young priest’s sometimes joking remarks on the life of bliss to come. The sacristy cabinets have just been polished and a cleansing fragrance of citrus wafts through the room. I may or may not return for next month’s program: Hell. When I return home I’m inspired to call the bank about my blocked credit card. After a brief back-and-forth, the card is unblocked. Tonight heaven is on my side.
April 9th, 2011
I hear from some friends that the Sistine Chapel Choir is singing at 9PM in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. “Go in at the side entrance,” I am told. The front entrance will be locked as a precaution against the merely curious tourist. I arrive late and join a knot of latecomers who do not want to interrupt the sonorous and ineffably pure sounds emanating from the church. I have always wanted be in this church at night under the glow of its more than sixty chandeliers. A concert is the perfect occasion to experience their elegant light. The gouged, unmatched columns, retrieved from the ruins of the Forum in the 13th century, contrast boldly with a later era’s refinements. At one point, I think I am hearing in stereo – and I am. A small choir has been deployed to the back of the church for this special effect, most famously put to use at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. The second part of the program has the children who are in training for the Sistine Chapel Choir show what they can do. Everyone sings beautifully together; no one is shouting, perfect pitch prevails. The front door to the church opens at the end of the concert and the audience descends the church’s 124 marble steps, bracingly handrail-free.