Thanks to a casual conversation in a quaint Italian town four years ago, the Choir of the Diocese of Rome, the Pope’s diocese, will be making its U.S. debut in June, with a six-city tour to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The choir, in residence at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, has appeared throughout Europe and Israel, as well as at the annual liturgies and solemn celebrations presided over by the Holy Father, including the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the liturgies of the Great Jubilee of 2000, the funeral of Pope John Paul II and World Youth Day. Led by Msgr. Marco Frisina, the U.S. tour is a homage to Blessed Pope John Paul II and will feature pieces composed for his beatification ceremony, as well as a sophisticated sacred repertoire and a medley of rare Italian songs from the ’30s to the ’50s.
The Italian songs are at the request of Nazario “Larry” Paragano, who came with his family to the United States from his boyhood home in the village of Camella in Perdifumo, Italy. Now a successful commercial and residential builder, Paragano has returned to Camella annually, including in 2007 for the rededication of St. Nazario Church, which was renovated with funding from the Paragano Family Foundation. About 50 members of the Choir of the Diocese of Rome performed at the ceremony and later came with Msgr. Frisina into the restaurant where Paragano was dining with his cousin. A conversation ensued about the possibility of the choir coming to America. Soon the choir was singing White Christmas on that hot July evening to demonstrate their English skills.
“One thing led to another, and I said, ‘Let’s see if we can’t get the American public introduced to the choir,’” recalled Paragano, noting that more people had come to Camella to see their performance than he had ever seen before. He hopes that American audiences will appreciate the beauty and sacredness of the music, particularly the melodies from his Italian heritage.
“It’s not every day that you can hear a very famous composer, conductor and choir,” says Paragano. “I’m hopeful that they will enjoy it as much as I did.”
Msgr. Frisina, master musical director of the Lateran Chapel, has been the director of the Choir of the Diocese of Rome since it was founded in 1984, just two years after he was ordained to the priesthood. He has a degree in music composition from the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia and obtained a license in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He has written more than 150 liturgical hymns in 25 collections and co-authored award-winning soundtracks for religious and historical movies, including The Bible Collection series produced by Turner Home Entertainment. His song Jesus Christ, You Are My Life, composed for the 2000 World Youth Day in Rome, has been popular abroad and is heard in dozens of languages. Maestro Frisina is currently working on a project on the life of the Virgin Mary and the score for a film inspired by the recent rescue of the Chilean miners.
The choir is composed of 250 members from parishes throughout Rome and Italy. They perform frequently in Italian dioceses and have appeared in Germany, Austria, France, Malta, Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel. They have collaborated with internationally acclaimed artists, including Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains, film composer Ennio Morricone and Italian superstars Andrea Bocelli and Mina. Two programs have been prepared for the U.S. tour, which will be accompanied by the Livingston Symphony Orchestra. The sacred selections will be performed in church settings.
One of the churches is the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., which is on the tour schedule for June 10. It is the last concert of the cathedral’s 42nd annual concert series, which normally runs only through the academic year, but an exception was made for this tour, according to music director John Miller. He expects a nearly full cathedral for the performance, which has been heavily promoted.
“It’s an international choir from Italy, and, even more so, from the Mother Church in Rome — and that’s a draw for people, especially those who sing in choral groups,” said Miller. “Because this is a diocesan choir from Rome, it will be interesting to have that exchange with an international choir.”
The choir will sing in Latin and Italian and will open with a piece familiar to U.S. choirs, Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus, the text of which comes from Psalm 42:1: “As the deer longs for running water, so longs my soul for you, O God.” The second half of the program will be mostly music composed by Msgr. Frisina, according to Miller.
The other program to be performed in theaters is secular and includes excerpts from the Italian folk tradition, “a sort of ‘Journey in Italy’ retrospective,” says Msgr. Frisina.
“This is a special year in Italy because we are celebrating 150 years of national unity. I would like our American friends, among whom are many descendants of Italian immigrants, to experience our music of Italy and Rome,” he says. “It will be a beautiful way to share our faith and our tradition of Italian music. I hope our tour inspires listeners to meet and share the beauty of God and of man’s heart.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.
Concert dates are as follows:
Saturday, June 4, at 3pm, Patriots Theater, Trenton, N.J.,/p>
Sunday, June 5, at 7:30pm, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City
Wednesday, June 8, at 8pm, Community Theatre, Morristown, N.J.
Thursday, June 9, at 8pm, Stamford Center for the Arts, Stamford, CT
Friday, June 10, at 7:30pm, Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Newark, N.J.
Saturday, June 11, at 7:30pm, Regina Pacis Church, Brooklyn, N.Y.