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Pop Music

Italian tenor is a Classic


I’ve always wanted to be a classical music person. Devotees always seem so refined, genteel, poised. They get their own rooms at the music super-stores while the rest of us have to wade through aisles of rap, pop and country in search of our music of choice. I like to picture myself dressed in black, sitting at a symphony concert, eyes closed, fading into the music. Or in my living room, surrounded by candlelight, lost in the rapturous melodies of the giants.

The reality: I am not a classical music person. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I took a music appreciation class in college. I’ve tuned my kitchen and car radios exclusively to National Public Radio so that after “Morning Edition” I’d enjoy a lush orchestral background as I washed the dishes or drove to work. Eventually, though, the radio always ended up on the local pop station again. Songs I could sing along to. Songs with words I understood. No matter how I longed to become a passionate fan of classical music, in the end, it always seemed boring.

I had resigned myself to this fate, until now. Hope comes in the form of a blind Italian singer named Andrea Bocelli. In the world of pop music, where artists like the tiny-tummied Christina Aguilera and the studly Backstreet Boys reign, 41-year-old Bocelli at first doesn’t seem to belong. He wears the same outfit in each of the liner note photos for his latest album, “Sacred Arias.” He doesn’t include endless pages of thank-yous there. He doesn’t really thank anyone at all, except for Myung-Whun Chung, the director of the orchestra that accompanies him. In his live performances, Bocelli fails to gyrate, flirt, or dance like a madman.

All he does is sing. There is nothing between him and his music. It is a single-mindedness that is rare today, one that turns his songs into prayer.

Apparently, I’m not the only pop music fan who appreciates Bocelli’s work. He received his first Grammy nomination last year for “Best New Artist,” along with the Dixie Chicks, Backstreet Boys and Lauryn Hill, unlikely peers all. This year, he received two Grammy nominations - one for “Best Male Pop Vocal Performance,” where he joined fellow nominees Ricky Martin and Lou Bega, the other for a duet with pop music diva Celine Dion. His sixth album, the 1999 “Sogno,” has gone double platinum, while “Sacred Arias” topped out at No. 22 on the Billboard Album chart.

Along with all this, Bocelli was recently featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, where he sang his beautiful “Con te Partiró” with a 55-piece orchestra. Winfrey said that his music makes her cry. From a popular perspective, no higher praise could be bestowed on an artist.

“Sacred Arias” features three different versions of “Ave Maria” and a host of other traditional songs including “Panis angelicus,” “Dominus Deus,” and “Sancta Maria.” There are melodies here by Verdi, Bach, Schubert, Handel and Mozart. Bocelli said that making this recording was a dream come true for him, that he’s loved sacred arias since he was a child. These songs were written to “glorify and magnify the greatness of God,” and are the “highest and most spiritual moments in music,” Bocelli said.

It usually makes me bristle when somebody tells me that something is sacred, especially something as traditional as this collection. It seems presumptuous to think you could know. Jesus himself said that there will be lots of surprises when things shake out at the end, that people who are sure of their godliness will be wrong, and that some who thought they never had a chance will be welcomed into the kingdom with open arms. Couldn’t it be the same with music? Maybe there are angels even now who are drawn to the songs of Sarah McLachlan and U2. Dressed in leather and spandex, drums and guitars ablaze, they fill the heavens with new songs of praise, exploring with contemporary artists the depths and heights of love and loss.

This doesn’t mean, though, that old songs can’t be sacred. That’s something that Bocelli helps me remember. When he sings “Sancta Maria,” his tenor voice soars, taking my spirit with it. There is a tenderness, a clarity and passion there. It’s so good that it probably makes those contemporary angels sit up and listen. And while initially it seemed like overkill to have so many “Ave Marias” on one album, it makes sense when you realize how different they are. The best is the Bach/Gounod version. It takes itself less seriously than the slightly stuffy Schubert song, which perhaps is the version most familiar to long-time fans of the genre.

One of my least favorite songs on the album is Rossini’s “Cuius animam.” It starts with a minor prelude, the kind of music that used to scare me when I was little. It’s appropriate for the song’s theme, though, which is Mary’s pain at the crucifixion. “Her grieving heart, anguished and lamenting, was pierced by a sword,” Bocelli sings (in Latin, of course). Later, the song moves into a marching kind of cadence. You can’t fault Bocelli’s interpretation; his voice caresses each note, transitioning from the minor to major sections without a flinch. It’s still too much for me, though, a vast, overwhelming song that makes me want to cover my ears.

The album finishes with a sacred aria for today, “Gloria a te, Cristo Gesú,” which the Vatican recently honored as the official anthem of the Great Jubilee. Written by a Lourdes priest, it is a rousing number, performed here by Bocelli with a choral accompaniment. The best part is the song’s beautiful “Amen! Alleluia!” sequence, words of praise that somehow have managed to maintain their holiness in spite of tremendous overuse through the years. In the right hands, “alleluia, amen” is all you need to say, the beginning and end of all prayers.

From the start, I wanted to like this album. What kind of person wouldn’t admire Bocelli, after all? He seems so beautiful, radiant and pure. It was easy to love “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles,” old favorites made even more brilliant by Bocelli’s strong, exquisite voice. Over time, after concentrated listening, other songs came alive, too. I’ve found myself humming them and think maybe they’ve become part of me.

In spite of my best efforts, though, I can’t say that for the whole collection. “Pietá Signore” is nearly seven minutes of pure boredom. Wagner’s “Der Engel” is painful. (So much for becoming a classical music person.)

This album is one I’ll keep. I’ll listen to it when it’s cold outside, and the moon is bright. I’ll draw the curtains, light the candles, put my head back and wait. I’ll search again for what Bocelli sees in this music, the beauty that moves him to tears. It’s there, I know it. I’ve seen flashes, caught the tail end of visions as they swirled past. Bocelli sings a path that brings me closer still. Maybe someday I’ll get there.

Robin Taylor writes from Salt Lake City.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000