St. Francis orchestra bids Benedict adieu

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Some of the students in the St. Francis Prep Chamber Orchestra and those in the Vicariate High School Choir, who performed for the pope before he left Kennedy Airport Sunday, said nervousness about the eminent audience was all part of the act.

"This is day two after the performance and they're still elated," said Robert Johnston, director of the music program at St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows, in a telephone interview.

The 12-hour day Sunday really began hours before students had to arrive at a staging ground at Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates by 11:45 a.m. to be bused to the airport's Hangar 19, where they set up to perform for not just the pope. Dignitaries, including Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), joined rows of bishops and cardinals from around the world, Johnston said.

The group performed, then waited hours for the guests to leave before boarding the bus again to arrive home on a school night at 11 p.m. or later, Johnston said.

"I woke up at 7 [a.m.] and I was kind of nervous," said Beatrice Soderberg, 17, a senior who plays violin in the chamber orchestra. "If you don't have nerves, you don't have that sense of excitement in performance."

The group played selections by Bach, Pachelbel, Vivaldi and Strauss mostly for the dignitaries and "guests as they were coming in and leaving, and only a couple of measures for the pope," she said.

The Sunday event was the send-off for Pope Benedict XVI after his visit to New York City. It started out as a big deal and got bigger as the date drew nearer.

"It was initially supposed to be 2,000 people, but it kept getting bigger" and in the end the high school students performed for an audience of about 5,000, Johnston said. "It's the biggest crowd these kids have ever played for."

It was so big, in fact, that students who wanted a good glimpse of the pope had to zoom in with their cameras, as Soderberg said she did.

"They had a JumboTron, so we could see him like that, but otherwise he was the size of an action figure," said Stephen Kovaciny, 18, a senior who plays bass in the chamber orchestra.

The performance took place in Hangar 19, away from the main buildings of JFK Airport, after a rehearsal Saturday in the space, and the acoustics were the first thing the students needed to adjust to, they said.

"We had a sound check Saturday. It was weird singing there," said James Lynch, 17, a St. Francis Prep senior from Rockaway who sings in the Vicariate High School Choir, which draws many of its singers from the school. "It looked like an airplane hangar and there were people fixing things up for the pope. The sound [of the choir singing] kind of died because there was nothing for it to bounce off of."

During Sunday's performance, experience took over and Lynch said he was not nervous.

"I've sung on stage a lot in concerts at Prep" and singing for the pope was not all that different, he said.

The chamber orchestra performers said the odd acoustics in the enormous space contributed to their jitters.

"The first three songs I was really nervous because we couldn't hear each other, but as we got used to it and people stopped moving around" they were able to relax and play, Kovaciny said.

The size of the crowd left Soderberg somewhat awestruck.

"There were a lot of people. It looked pretty big on Saturday" when the chamber orchestra rehearsed to empty folding chairs in the hangar, she said, but the number of attendees made an impression on her. "I didn't expect so many people could be in one space."

Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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