Mark your calendars for Sunday, Oct. 8, at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Hollywood. On this night at 7:30 p.m. will be the world premiere of Victor Vanacore’s “La Sorgente,” a collection of 10 neoclassical arias based on the poetry of St. Pope John Paul II.
Vanacore is a Grammy-winning composer/arranger who has been at the forefront of classical and pop music for more than 30 years. He’s worked closely with The Jackson Five and Ray Charles, among many others.
The 10 poems featured in the 90-minute “La Sorgente” come from Pope John Paul’s book of meditations, “Trittico Romano: Meditazioni” (“The Roman Triptych: Meditations”), which are widely regarded as his spiritual last testament.
The premiere will feature a 45-piece orchestra, two soprano and four tenor soloists, among them Lisa Eden and Orson Van Gay. Vanacore will also conduct.
He started music early, back in New Haven, Connecticut.
“My parents had a lot of kids. My dad was a machinist, my mother was a homemaker and my aunt would clean an extra day at the convent on Saturdays just so I could go to Catholic school there. I never had to worry about what I was going to become because from the beginning I had perfect pitch. The nuns exposed me to classical and other kinds of music. I had all the Beethoven sonatas done by the fourth grade.”
In the 1970s after college, Vanacore moved to California and became a professional musician. Around 1980, he became involved in church music.
“I was dragged in screaming and crying by a liturgist at my parish. But when I started to play there, I couldn’t stop. I’d been an altar boy as a kid, but I woke up to the readings and to the meaning of the Mass. There’s a reason for the priest walking down the aisle, for every movement.”
Around 2005, he was made aware of the Roman Triptych by a neighbor: Placido Domingo’s son.
“Placi Junior. He asked if I thought I could make one of the poems into an aria because John Paul II had asked his father if he could sing them.”
That Vanacore came across the meditations is no accident. “A coincidence is God’s way of retaining his anonymity. By that time, I was older and my faith had caught up to my musical ability. It takes your whole life for your faith to grow.”
The meaning of “la sorgente” is spring — the wellspring.
“John Paul II would say we go with the current, but there are also times to go against the stream, against popular thinking. Most of the clerics of his time, the 1940s, were looking at what was happening in Europe from afar. He, by contrast, risked his life. Later he went to prison and forgave his would-be assassin. It takes a special person to do that. There’s a man. A man’s man.”
The pope was a naturalist. “The poems metaphorically connect his words with nature. That’s very germane to our stewardship of the planet today.” Old Testament themes, including the story of Abraham and Isaac, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings also predominate.
At the time the poems weren’t yet in book form. “What I saw was just a bunch of Xeroxes. So I said, ‘Give me one of them and I’ll try it.’ ”
When he did, the power of the words — especially when put to classical instrumentation — awed him. He spent the next 10 years finishing the 10 poems. A passion project.
One of Pope John Paul’s friends, Grażyna Miller, had translated the poems from Polish into Italian. Vanacore consulted with scholars to ensure the English was faithful to the original. He then approached the Vatican’s publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, and received all worldwide media rights to the words of the Roman Triptych.
He’s calling the concert “Woodstock for the Faithful.”
“We’ll broadcast the words by musical phrase with PowerPoint. The singers will be singing in Italian and the audience member will see, for example, ‘The heart of the forest descends, to the rhythm of mountains streams.’ There’ll literally be a hill behind the theater. They may put up a few images with slides.”
“The Ford is an 1,100-seat theater. We’ll be sharing our faith and our love of music. I want to be able to reach people who are suffering, and people of faith drawn to intentional discipleship. Our lives here are really, really short. The only proof that we were here at all is the kindness that we share with others, the paintings and music that we leave behind.
“The words aren’t that optimistic. History isn’t always optimistic. But at the end of each aria we’re brought back to hope. This is the road each one of us, no matter our beliefs, must take.”
Vanacore’s next project will be to make an opera around the 10 arias loosely based on the life of Michelangelo. In time, he hopes to take “La Sorgente” out to the wider world.
“I’m sometimes asked why with such a big career I’d bother with church music. Here’s my answer: I’m a Catholic first and a musician second.”
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.