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The first live UK performance of the new album Alma Mater – featuring the voice of Pope Benedict XVI took place on Wednesday 2 December at Westminster Cathedral.
The Chamber Choir of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome (the Vatican's choir) made their UK debut, and were joined by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, composers Simon Boswell, Stefano Mainetti and Nour Eddine, and singer Yasemin Sannino. The only performer not present was the Holy Father himself. Instead, his voice was heard via recordings.
The first part of the concert featured Gregorian chant sung by the choir, conducted by Monsignor Pablo Colino, Emeritus Chapel Master for St. Peter's Basilica. In the second part, six of the new CD's eight tracks were performed. Simon Boswell and Stefano Mainetti took turns to conduct the combined forces of choir and orchestra.
The works combine Gregorian chant, contemporary music from the Western art music tradition, and Middle-Eastern music. Stefano Mainetti and Simon Boswell's backgrounds in film music composition come through in the lush string textures and repetition of motives. This sound is contrasted with sparse exchanges between different sections of the choir and orchestra and the Pope.
Regina Coeli, composed and conducted by Stefano Mainetti, features the voice of Istanbul-born Yasemin Sannino alongside that of the Pope, who first chants in French and later sings. The introduction of Arab elements in Sannino's line in this work paved the way perfectly for the following piece, Advocata nostra. This is Moroccan-born musician Nour Eddine's contribution to the album, and he played the Arab string instrument, the Oud in the performance. The Middle-Eastern drums tabla and deff underpin the music with energetic Arab rhythms. These Arab sections are alternated with sections of Gregorian-style chant and the Pope's voice over a solo cello.
The performance was quite a spectacle, with mood lighting on the stage, candles around the altar, and screens on each side, displaying pictures of the Pope during the sections in which he chanted. One welcome addition would have been the Pope's words in English on the screen, for those of us who don't speak all the four languages he used!
Sir Rocco Forte, leading hotelier, and his wife Lady Aliai attended the concert. Friends of Monsignor Pablo Colino from Rome, Sir Rocco told Classic FM that they enjoyed the blend of contemporary music and Gregorian chant. His favourite piece was the last, Magistra Nostra by Simon Boswell, for its 'melting' of the elements.
Classic FM also spoke to Simon Boswell, Stefano Mainetti and Yasemin Sannino after the concert. They all enjoyed the experience of performing the project live in the wonderful acoustic of Westminster Cathedral. It was the first time that all those involved had come together to perform, since the different forces were put together in the studio for the recording. Do they have plans to perform Alma Mater elsewhere, perhaps in the Middle East? All agreed that this would be exciting and they have received many invitations. It will take some time to work out the logistics of putting on further concerts, due to the large number of people involved.
Tickets to the Westminster Cathedral concert were free and allocated on a first come, first served basis, and through competitions. Released on 30 November, Alma Mater has been eagerly awaited as the first album to feature Pope Benedict's voice.