WASHINGTON — How do you choose the music for the first canonization in the United States?
First of all, slowly, said Grayson Wagstaff, dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at The Catholic University of America.
The selection process began back in February, and all of the music had to be approved by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington. “It’s his vision for the Mass,” Wagstaff observed in an interview with Catholic News Service. There will be as much original music as the schedule permits.
The outdoor crowd at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Sept. 23 will hear 19 works either newly commissioned or arranged, including a Communion antiphon and two other works composed by Catholic University professor Leo Nestor, conducting the university’s Chamber Choir and University Singers.
Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan missionary to California. Mass is being celebrated on the steps of the national shrine’s east portico. Massgoers will gather on the lawn between the massive church and the Catholic University campus.
The compositions also include a South African work, “Let’ Isikia,” the Aaron Copland arrangement of “Simple Gifts,” and a new choral work by Peter Latona, “Peace Prayer of St. Francis.”
Latona also has written a new hymn, “Look Up and Count the Stars,” for the papal visit to Philadelphia.
Also, with a special nod toward the new saint. The program of the Spanish-language Mass includes “Albricias Mortales,” the Baroque work by Mexican composer Manuel de Zumaya. It was familiar to Blessed Serra and it includes “a spectacular trumpet solo,” said Simeone Tartaglione, director of the university’s symphony orchestra, and will include solos by mezzo-soprano Anamer Castrello, and tenor Carlos Feliciano from Puerto Rico and Gustavo Ahualli, whom Wagstaff called “our amazing faculty baritone,” who, like Pope Francis, is from Argentina.
Finally, said Tartaglione, for a crowd of at least 25,000 with tickets, it’s important to have a big sound. “You get as many as you can find.” The Mass will have 400 musicians and vocalists, In addition to the university singers, there’s the Basilica Choir, three choirs from the Archdiocese of Washington and one professional ensemble, the Washington Symphonic Brass.
Although the Italian-born Tartaglione has conducted concerts at the Vatican before, neither he nor Wagstaff have planned an event on this massive scale, let alone one at which the pope is present.
Nervous much? Both said surprisingly, no. They’ve been too busy to allow for that.
Also, the preparations on campus have been more happy than stressful. “This pope, I think, connects with young people,” said Wagstaff. “The excitement at the university is just amazing.”
In the spirit of Pope Francis’ humility and devotion to the poor, on Saturday the student symphony previewed their Mass performance with selections from Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony at So Others Might Eat, an interfaith Washington charity that serves free meals to the needy.
Tartaglione hoped the diners caught the music’s “joyful spirit.”