Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Churchopedia #6 (Church #28): The Catholics (Italian style)

I rested my violin against my right knee and carefully stepped off the bus, turning slightly to my left to avoid hitting the person behind me with my music stand. The black stand poked uncomfortably into my shoulder and the awkward legs pushed into my ankle. A small purse with a long strap hung vulnerably on my wrist, sweeping against the ground.

Once I safely was off the bus I moved to the side to get situated as my fellow musicians stepped down the stairs, each with as much, if not more, discomfort than me. I scooted to my right while trying to hoist my violin on my back, nearly running into Michael as he waited for his bass to be unloaded from the bottom storage compartment. He silently took the music stand in my left hand, allowing me to straighten my dress, sweep the hair out of my face and lock my purse into a more secure position. I picked up his music stand with my right hand and took my own from him with my left. He carefully hoisted up his bass and hooked both hands through straps, putting the majority of the weight on his torso. I was carrying four items to his one, but he still had the bigger and heavier load. “How long do you think we have to walk this time?” I asked him. “Does it matter?” He replied, smiling. We followed the rest of the orchestra down the uncomfortable cobblestone streets of Lucca, Italy.

It wasn’t as hot as Venice, but the black long-sleeved dress, tights and high-heels were already causing me to pant and sweat, as if I were running a race. Every block or so, a girl (often I) would lose track of her balance, get her heel stuck in the road and nearly topple over. We rarely spoke of the unique traveling experience when doing so for performance rather than vacation. We had stayed up late the night prior, sneaking into each other’s rooms and being innocently obnoxious. We rehearsed early in the morning and had a quick break for lunch and a nap. Then, we got dressed, piled on the bus, and headed to our concert destination. At this point, many of us had only traveled abroad with an instrument in hand, so this was normal and even enjoyable. It’s one thing to visit ancient landmarks as a tourist; it’s another to make music the same places music has been made for centuries. It was a blessed experience—one that took me to four countries and two continents before I was 16.

Lucca was confusing. We knew we were performing in a church, but there were churches everywhere. At each corner, we slowed down, in hopes that we had reached our destination. Finally, we stopped at a plain building down an ally from the main square. We walked up several steps and into a cool, open room with columns flanking the seating area. Pictures and statues of saints lined the walls and a moderately ornate altar was behind the orchestra’s performance area. It was at this moment that I fell in love with the Catholic Church.

Michael was less impressed. He was raised Catholic and agreed with the beauty and antiquity of the church, but did not get an exotic feeling from the symbols, statues and d├ęcor. We walked quickly down the center aisle, not giving me the time I wanted to take in every detail. We were lead into a chamber off the main room with a large, square hole excavated in the center and surrounded by rope. After dropping our belongings, much of the orchestra rushed to look down the hole. There were layers of architecture clearly made from different materials. Our local host explained that this church had been built a couple hundred years prior on top of another church, which was on top of another church, which was on top of a pagan worshipping space, which was on top of something else. Essentially, we were standing on and looking at more than two thousand years of spirituality.

The concert went beautifully and in my opinion, was the best we had played in Italy. The second to last song was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a crowd and musician favorite. This time, though, when we began playing, something was different. It was the perfect temperature, we were comfortable and happy, and I felt connected to every musician around me. The audience relaxed, many of them closing their eyes and tilting their heads toward the ceiling. Dr. Block conducted in a tranquil, quiet manner and our sound echoed to the ceiling and back. At the end of the piece, when the last note had faded, we were frozen. We looked as still as the statues and felt as peaceful as the painting of Mary holding baby Jesus. It was silent for what seemed like several minutes, the audience still calm and the orchestra still in playing position. Dr. Block’s hands were stuck in the cut-off mode but he had closed his eyes as if he were listening to the absence of sound. Finally, there was a unison sigh and no applause. Several of the musicians were crying, or shaking their heads in disbelief. It was, by far, the most intense, wonderful, spiritual music experience of my whole life. And though we received no physical or audible sign of enjoyment, I knew that the audience was as awe-struck as we were.

There is not much I can say about my visit to Holy Rosary Catholic Church in downtown Kansas City, except that it managed to transport me back, briefly, to that time in Lucca. It seemed delicate but steadfast and wonderfully Italian. Though it had an old physique, the congregation had progressed, welcoming the Vietnamese population that had settled in the area by doing some of the service in two languages. I left content, falling back into my belief that the Catholic church, though sometimes theologically behind the times, makes up for all of it’s faults in beauty, spirituality and pure historical significance. I envy their grace and dedication, and I hope some of it has rubbed off on me along the way.

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