Music that could thaw the iciness of nations

The third week in February, Venice was cold enough to make our bones ache. But it didn't matter; in a winter when storm after storm had battered our small house on the Massachusetts coast, we had been eager for escape. Even the chilly political climate that blanketed our country and Europe had not deterred our travel plans.

During our first four days in Venice my husband and I got lost dozens of times, arriving in the same square or campo, face to face with the graceful church we'd left 20 minutes earlier. All the clichés about getting lost in Venice came true for us: We'd turn down yet another narrow passageway that ended in a murky canal. Hungry, huddled beneath a street lamp, I'd dig out my glasses to read the map, only to find we were nowhere near the restaurant where we'd planned to have dinner.

We bought a pass to the churches scattered around the city and scheduled our days, visiting - or, more truthfully, stumbling upon - one after another of the sometimes grand, sometimes humble structures. None of the churches was heated, but it didn't matter; my agnosticism and my frozen toes thawed as we stood captivated beneath a Tintoretto or a Titian.

The rich pigments, the vast mosaics, the sadness and joy that radiated from the achingly human faces - several days of immersion in this larger-than-life world began to have an effect on us.

One evening as we made our way down the steps of a church, soft snowflakes were falling. They had already added a sugary coating to the tiled rooftops. A scraggly group of youngsters wandered by, singing in silvery harmony - their schoolboy voices surrounding us as we drifted into paradise.

On a wooden table at the entrance to many of the churches, alongside the postcards and pamphlets describing the artwork, we kept seeing fliers that advertised a concert of choral music to be performed by students from - of all places - a high school in Rhode Island.

The concert was on a Wednesday evening, our last night before heading home, in our favorite church. We decided to go, to support our fellow New Englanders - and besides, our earlier encounter with the band of boy troubadours had left us yearning for music.

We got lost on our way to Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but arrived just as the doors were being opened to admit the small gathering. The white marble church glowed invitingly in the moonlight; inside, it was freezing. My husband and I tightened the scarves around our necks without speaking, each hoping the other would be the one to suggest taking refuge in a warm cafe. But then the students began to assemble at the altar, and we settled in for what we hoped would be a brief concert.

A young woman moved to the front of the group and, in Italian, spoke to the audience; she then translated her words to English. The singers were from Pilgrim High School in Warwick, R.I.; they had sung at the Vatican earlier in the week, and again in Florence. This would be their final concert before returning to the United States.

The choral leader, a thin woman belted tightly in a winter coat, stepped forward and blew into her pitch pipe. The singing began. Spirituals, Latin hymns, a Cape Breton melody, a Southern work song, an excerpt from a Kenyan mass. At first, the whole group sang; then a trio of three young women took center stage.

Next, an ensemble of the older students performed songs with even more complicated melodies; they added a tambourine, and, in a virtuoso performance, two teenage boys took turns singing in deep, gravelly voices.

Finally - and this is when I was no longer able to hold back my tears - a young woman with eyes as solemn as those of the Madonna behind her sang a slow, wrenching version of the Beatles' "Blackbird."

The faces of the choral group reflected the ethnic backgrounds of people I'd grown up with: Irish, French-Canadian, Portuguese, Polish, Italian. They stood straight and tall, and held their book of songs up high in front of them. Their mouths formed perfect ovals, and the notes streamed out from deep inside.

They kept their eyes on the thin woman with the overcoat, and I knew that it was she who had done this, she who had had helped them find that place within themselves where poise, excellence, discipline - and the music - lived.

When the concert ended, the audience lingered in the hard wooden pews, reluctant to return to the real world. We, too, hesitated, no longer thinking of a caffe latte, no longer aware of the damp air in the marble church.

To my surprise, I felt a transfixing sense of patriotism. For the first time in many years, I was proud to be an American, proud to have come from the same country as these angels of peace, who had done more to remove the iciness between nations than any politician could hope to do.

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