Pope sets stage for historic blending of choirs

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"I think it will be a challenge to sing with them," acknowledged Hugh Rowlands, a 13-year-old Westminster chorister who will be performing on Friday, and a day earlier at a private concert with the Sistine singers for Vatican officials in the Sistine Chapel itself.

He noted that the choir often sings with other English choirs, which are similar in style. Performing with foreign choirs is another matter. "It might be challenging but if we have our wits about us it will go well," he said.

Rowlands spoke at a reception Tuesday for the Westminster crew at the American Academy in Rome, designed to give the boys a relaxing start to a busy few days of concerts and services, the highlight of which will be Friday's Mass. The 19 boys played ping pong and bocce in the academy gardens, crawled down to an ancient Roman aqueduct on the academy grounds and inhaled plates of pasta with meatballs.

It was a welcome break from the daily grind for the choristers, who from the age of seven or eight are selected to attend the prestigious London choir school, where they live away from their families and carry a full load of academics while performing eight services a week, plus touring and concerts.

"There are some times when you can get very tired and you just wish you could sleep until noon when you wake up from a concert," said 12-year-old Benjamin MacLean. "But it is very fun and the experiences you get on tours like visiting the pope or meeting the president, it's amazing."

The 19 Westminster boys came to Rome along with 12 lay vicars, the adult men in the choir. They may well be overwhelmed by the 35 boys and 22 men in the Sistine choir.

James O'Donnell, the music director of the Westminster choir, said both sides would have to make some adjustments for the performance but that the music chosen — Palestrina, the 16th century Roman composer who represents the best of Renaissance polyphony — is common to the repertoires of both.

"We are different, but we have a lot of things in common despite the many differences," he said. "We don't want to turn into the Sistine Chapel Choir and they certainly don't want to turn into the choir of Westminster Abbey. But what we want to do is make music together."

Benedict himself was behind the decision to invite Westminster to Rome, so awed by the quality of the choirboys when they sang for him at Westminster Abbey during his September 2010 visit. He specifically asked that the choirs be united as one, rather than alternate during the performance as is commonly done, said the Very Rev. John Hall, dean of Westminster Abbey.

Palombella, the Sistine choirmaster, jumped at the chance, eager to open up his choir to outside influences and shed the Sistine's reputation as a historical relic closed to innovation.

"These meetings are good for both Sistine and Westminster," he said in an interview. "Because it makes us learn the precision and detail of the English choirs, and it makes the English learn the warmth and intensity that the Italian choir has."

O'Donnell, his counterpart in London, concurred.

"They are a very important, unique musical institution," he said. "And if they open themselves up to working with us and to other influences that they are open to at the moment, which will broaden their range and help them explore new avenues, then that can only be encouraged, as it must be for any musical ensemble."

Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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