Music to the ears of interfaith crowd

Worship: Commissioned by Pope John Paul II, the concert at the Baltimore Basilica brought together Christians, Jews and Muslims to celebrate religious diversity.

March 29, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The angels were singing Monday night as a rapt audience of Christians, Jews and Muslims gathered in the historic Baltimore Basilica for a grand choral concert celebrating religious diversity in the year 2000.

Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, the three divine messengers sung by soloists in Franz Joseph Haydn's oratorio "The Creation," held a capacity crowd of 1,100 spellbound throughout the three-hour performance by the London Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus under the baton on Gilbert Levine. (The concert was recorded by Maryland Public Television for national distribution and is expected to be broadcast statewide May 13 and 21.)

As Gabriel, Maryland native Janice Chandler's soaring soprano arias seemed to fill the great hall with celestial vibrations.

"Janice is simply a marvel," Levine said. "Baltimore's own is an extraordinary, world-class soprano."

The Basilica's superb acoustics were an equally good showcase for the clear tenor of Richard Clement, who sang the part of Uriel, and to John Relyea, a thrilling bass-baritone who sang Raphael.

FOR THE RECORD - In some editions yesterday, the name of composer Franz Joseph Haydn was misspelled in an article about the London Philharmonia Orchestra concert at the Baltimore Basilica. The Sun regrets the error.

The concert was the first of an international series of musical events commissioned by Pope John Paul II to celebrate the ecumenical spirit of interfaith cooperation and reconciliation in the church's Jubilee year.

"Maestro Levine approached me a year ago to say that of all the suggestions that had been made to John Paul II, the pope had selected Haydn's "Creation" for a performance at the Vatican on his birthday on May 18," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore.

Levine had conducted another interfaith concert locally just before the pope's visit to Baltimore in 1995, and he suggested that the concert tour internationally and that Baltimore be its first stop.

"The maestro knew about the acoustics here, as well as that we have a long history of religious tolerance in Maryland," Keeler said.

He said one reason the pope chose Haydn's "Creation" was because it's based on the opening verses of the Book of Genesis, whose words are sacred in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. The piece represents a common thread in all three of the world's great monotheistic religions and can serve as a kind of bridge between them, he said.

The ecumenical spirit was on the minds of many of those present Monday evening, the second and final performance by the orchestra in Baltimore.

The first performance was last Sunday and was attended by a VIP audience of city, state and national religious leaders.

"The Jubilee is a year of Sabbath rest and reconciliation that comes every 50 years," said Father Richard Cramblitt, who attended the concert with two parishioners, Anne and Joseph Haley of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church in Mount Washington.

"God told Moses to keep Jubilee periodically because even He rested on the seventh day," Cramblitt said. "The idea was that it was a time the land should be left fallow, slaves set free, debts forgiven and all things set right."

Like many of those present, Anne Haley said the idea behind the concert and the opportunity to hear a great orchestra and soloists in an historic setting were what attracted her.

"It's a wonderful treat just to be here," she said.

Divine guidance

Haydn wrote "The Creation" near the end of his life in 1798, and he regarded it as his masterpiece. It was his most successful work during his lifetime, but by all accounts it also cost him enormous effort to complete.

"One moment I was as cold as ice, and next I seemed on fire," the composer wrote. "More than once I thought I should have a fit."

Like his great predecessor Georg Friederich Handel, whose oratorios Haydn admired, the composer felt compelled to seek divine assistance during this period.

"Daily I fell on my knees and begged God to vouchsafe me strength for the fortunate outcome of my work," Haydn recalled. "I felt so penetrated with religious feeling that before I sat down to the pianoforte, I prayed to God with earnestness that he would enable me to praise Him worthily."

The piece opens with a mysterious orchestral prelude that evokes the primal chaos of the time before creation.

Then, in a brooding recitative, the angel Raphael relates that in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth. When he's finished, a mighty chorus announces that God said "Let there be light" -- and the word "light" is punctuated by a majestic major chord from the orchestra.

In one of the evening's many memorable moments, the lights in the Basilica, which had been subdued until that moment, suddenly flared brightly to emphasize the divine transformation.

The rest of the creation story is told in three parts and unfolds in magnificent choruses, arias and recitatives. The three angelic soloists narrate the events of the next six days, culminating with the creation of Adam and Eve.

The Basilica was designed in the neoclassical style popular during the American Revolution by architect Benjamin Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol.

History of tolerance

Before the music began, Keeler told the audience that it was fitting for the Basilica to hold an ecumenical concert, because Maryland was the first place in the English-speaking world to pass a religious diversity law.

"We have had this history of tolerance," Keeler said. "This building is the architectural symbol of religious freedom, just as the U.S. Capitol is the architectural symbol of political freedom."

Baltimore is the only U.S. venue but later this year, the orchestra will perform concerts in London's Westminster Cathedral, Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral, the cathedral in Toledo, Spain, and in the Vatican for the pope's 80th birthday.

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