Among the locales Pope Benedict's limousine passed Saturday evening on Manhattan's Upper East Side was the Park Avenue Armory, a large 1881 building whose Drill Hall, reminiscent of a huge, cavernous European train shed, is slowly being turned into a performing arts space.
As it turns out, a concert of sacred music by the great 20th century master Igor Stravinsky was on tap and the performance by the Gotham City Orchestra and the Vox Vocal Ensemble was delayed a few minutes to allow concertgoers outside the chance to watch the pope and his large police escort go by. (The concert organizers also presumably wanted the police sirens and helicopters out of the way before the performance began.)
Outside, it was something of a typical New York scene: one older woman shook her head at seeing the surrounding blocked off streets and kvetched about "how much this is all going to cost." Meanwhile, two hirsute gay men, one in leather pants, greeted each other with a kiss on the lips.
In short, this wasn't exactly Benedict's crowd.
Or maybe it was. Benedict is known to love classical music, though it's not known if the musical tastes of the pope, an accomplished pianist who unwinds by playing Mozart, extend to the moderns, including the music of Stravinsky, best known for his riotous 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring, a depiction of pagan Russia. As it turns out, in early middle age Stravinsky returned to the Russian Orthodox faith of his youth, though the text of his sacred music - including the Symphony of Psalms, the Mass and the Requiem Canticles, all performed Saturday evening - were in Latin.
As the program notes pointed out, most of Stravinsky's sacred music "would be for the church of the ear, designed to address matters of praise, penance, and mortality without regard to any ecclesiastical authority." Hmmm'.
Then there's the matter of sound: if the music of Benedict's beloved Mozart and the other German-Austrian masters sound like the musical equivalent of well-burnished wood, Stravinsky's astringent and biting harmonies are the musical equivalent of angular, glimmering steel.
Even so, as the last chords of Stravinsky's Mass slowly drifted away to the words "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem" (O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace), the audience was transfixed, momentarily forgetting that it was listening to sacred music in a peculiarly non-sacred space.
Would Benedict have approved? Call it a draw. Maybe.