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MEDIA AND ENTERTAINMENT THE CATHOLIC NORTHWEST PROGRESS
NOVEMBER 26, 2009
Pope’s ‘debut album’ a surprising pleasure
‘Alma Mater’ mixes chant, classical music and papal prayers
BY KEVIN BIRNBAUM
It’s a strange concept on paper: an album of modern classical music featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Choir of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome … and Pope Benedict XVI on lead vocals?
Things don’t get any clearer when you find out that the choir and orchestra were recorded in different countries — at St. Peter’s in Rome and Abbey Road in London, respectively; that the pope’s contributions — in Latin, Italian, Portuguese, French and German — come from prayers and speeches broadcast on Vatican Radio; that the composers of the eight tracks include an Italian Catholic, a British agnostic and a Moroccan Muslim; or that the album is being released on a label that also features Rob Zombie and Snoop Dogg.
But somehow it works. “Alma Mater – Music from the Vatican,” set to be released Nov. 30, is as eclectic as its background would suggest, both between tracks and within them. A mix of chanted Marian litany, orchestral music and spoken word, it’s almost certainly unlike anything you’ve heard before. And yet the juxtapositions are not jarring; in their interplay, the disparate elements enhance each other’s beauty.
For instance, track three, “Advocata Nostra,” begins with an upbeat “world music” section that builds in complexity for 80 seconds before suddenly giving way to a series of chanted invocations of the Virgin Mary in Latin; a minute later, it’s back to the music, which subsides just before the three-minute mark as the pope chimes in, praying in German over a cello line; soon the choir returns, followed by the strings; and the final minute of the 5:44 track returns to the opening theme.
It’s surprising, but pleasant, like the whole album.
The compositions are simple yet lovely, the orchestra and choir generally solid (though the singers leave something to be desired when they venture out of chant mode into harmony, which is rare). But the unexpected star of the show is Pope Benedict, whose verbal interjections do not seem out of place, but are always welcome and somehow comforting — his voice radiates warmth and love in any language.
The album would serve equally well as the soundtrack to a period of prayerful meditation or a festive family brunch. It deserves to be a popular Christmas gift for any Catholic or music lover.