ROME - Music, a universal expression that transcends languages and differences - it is a view many attending the first concert performed by Chinese musicians for the Pope at the Vatican on Wednesday could agree with.
Pope Benedict XVI applauds during a concert by the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra in Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 7, 2008. [Agencies]
Under the baton of Chinese conductor Yu Long, the stars of the concert held at the Paul VI Audience Hall were the China Philharmonic Orchestra and the Shanghai Opera House chorus, along with Chinese soprano Rao Lan, mezzo soprano Cao Zheng, tenor Zhang Jianyi and baritone Gong Dongjian, who gave a rendition of Mozart's Requiem and Chinese folksong Jasmine.
"Music is a unique, universal language which can help people from different nations, races and cultures to understand and respect each other," Pope Benedict XVI said in his address to the audience after the concert.
The Pope then walked to the audience and cordially shook hands with Deng Rong, head of the Chinese music delegation and vice president of China Association for International Friendly Contact, Chinese Ambassador to Italy, Sun Yuxi, and the Foreign Ministry's deputy director general of European affairs, Liu Haixing.
"The arts are the treasure of the whole of mankind," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said yesterday at a regular press conference.
"We believe this (concert) helps enhance mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese and the Europeans," Qin said.
"The concert could be a good beginning to open dialogue between China and the Vatican," said Bernard Francis Law, the archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four major Catholic basilicas of Rome.
"It is an important event and useful for improving the relationship between the Vatican and China," said Vittoria Mancini, president of Association Italy and China.
Based in Rome, Association Italy and China was founded in 1963 and currently has about 2,000 members. They organize cultural and business events to promote the friendship between the two countries.
Before the Wednesday concert at the Vatican, Annick de Kermadec-Bentzmann, general manager of BNP Paribas Corporate & Investment Banking Shanghai Branch, told China Daily that she had attended a concert by the orchestra under the baton of Yu, at the St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai on April 8.
A Catholic herself, Annick de Kermadec-Bentzmann was so moved by the music that when she knew the orchestra was slated to perform at the Vatican, she tried to get an invitation and headed from Paris to Rome.
"The orchestra gave a wonderful concert at Shanghai's church. Mozart's Requiem is a perfect choice for a religious venue. What's more, it is such a historic event for China - it indicates a new phrase of the relationship between the Vatican and the country," she said.
Rita Sergio, an accountant with the Italian insurance company Fondieria, was one of the 7,000 ordinary Catholics invited to the concert.
"I feel happy to get the invitation because it is a rare opportunity to understand Chinese people, their culture, and the way they think," she said.
Two years ago, Sergio herself studied in a language school located in a Chinese community in Rome. She made friends with a number of Chinese and read many books about the country.
"In my mind, China used to be an old country in the Far East and not open to other people. But in last two years, I have realized that many things are changing there and Chinese are quite involved in the international scene," Sergio said.
Like ping-pong diplomacy
The Vatican concert is now being compared with the ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China in the 1970s. As Foreign Ministry Qin Gang said yesterday, the country is willing to improve relations with the Vatican.
"We hope to continue constructive dialogues with the Vatican side based on related principles and push for the normalization of the bilateral relations."
"I am very happy if our concert can be a step to improving the relationship between the Vatican and China. Music goes beyond religions and languages to help people understand each other. I hope people can understand, through the concert, that today's China is very much involved in international culture," said conductor Yu Long, 44.
The success of the concert came despite its formal announcement a week ago, which was considered short notice for both musicians and people involved in preparations.
Guido Rainaldi, director of the Paul VI Audience Hall, said he officially got the news only two weeks ago.
"The concert sends the message that the Pope would like to open the doors of his home to China and listen to music performed by Chinese musicians. This is definitely a sign that the Pope is available for dialogue with China," Rainaldi told China Daily on Tuesday afternoon, when the orchestra rehearsed at the Audience Hall.
While the notice was short, the initiation of the historic visit could actually date back to December 2004, when the orchestra made its first appearance under the baton of Yu in Rome.
Li Nan, deputy director of the orchestra, said a number of high government officials from Italy attended that concert in Rome and suggested that the Chinese orchestra should perform at the Vatican.
Yu has since made every effort to make that a reality. But some have said that has been hard to realize because of the religious and political conditions, and the sensitive relationship between the Vatican and China.
The first turning point came in November 2006, during the Beijing Music Festival, when the China Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choir of Teatro La Fenice performed Mozart's Requiem at Beijing's St. Joseph's Church (Dongtang Cathedral) in the commercial street of Wangfujing - the first time an orchestra performed in a church in China.
Yu and Li visited Chinese cardinal Fu Tianshan (1931-2007) in hospital to get approval to hold the concert. Fu and a number of government officials, including former vice-premier Wu Yi and former state councilor Chen Zhili, attended that concert.
"That concert opened up the area," said Li, adding that the performance in Shanghai's St. Ignatius Cathedral on April 8 also helped pave the way.
Ye Xiaowen, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, attended the concert in Shanghai.