Image: Benedict XVI, Lan Rao
Plinio Lepri  /  AP
Soprano Lan Rao kneels before Pope Benedict XVI during the China Philharmonic Orchestra's concert at the Vatican on Wednesday.
updated 5/7/2008 9:44:11 PM ET 2008-05-08T01:44:11

The China Philharmonic Orchestra performed for Pope Benedict XVI in a landmark concert Wednesday that could indicate warming relations between Beijing and the Vatican.

Benedict called it a "truly unique event" and offered a "thank you" in Chinese at the end of the hour-long concert.

He praised music as a bridge between cultures and peoples and expressed greetings "to all the people of China as they prepare for the Olympic Games." The pontiff said he wanted to reach out "to your entire people" and that he had a "special thought" for Chinese Catholics loyal to the papacy.

Benedict, a classical music lover, sat in an embroidered ivory velvet chair and listened intently to Mozart's "Requiem." He applauded at the end.

"This is a glorious moment that will be cherished long in our memories," conductor Yu Long said in brief remarks to the pope and guests before the concert began. "I hope tonight's performance will help spread a message of peace and love."

Strained relations
Ties between the Vatican and China's communist government have been strained for decades.

"Music is beyond any religion, culture, language, and I would say music is the language of God because language is understanding each other," the conductor told The Associated Press in an interview before the evening concert in the Paul VI auditorium.

He said he wanted to send a message to the Chinese people about the value of understanding Western culture — and added: "especially I hope the whole world can also understand us."

Yu led the 75-member orchestra in the "Requiem" and a Chinese folk song, "Jasmine Flower."

The orchestra was accompanied by the 70-member Shanghai Opera House chorus.

"I am especially honored to perform at the Vatican and for the pope," he said, calling it a "double honor" because Benedict is a Mozart expert.

Relations with Beijing takes front seat
Benedict has made the improvement of relations with Beijing a priority of his papacy.

China's officially atheist Communist Party cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 and the two sides have not restored formal ties.

Beijing objects to the Vatican's tradition of having the pope name his own bishops, calling it interference in China.

China appoints bishops for the state-sanctioned Catholic church. Still, many of the country's estimated 12 million Catholics worship in congregations outside the state-approved church.

It wasn't clear if the event would move the Vatican and China toward reconciliation, but the Vatican's No. official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was quoted by Italian news agencies as saying Wednesday that the concert was a sign of hope for improvement.

Although they have no diplomatic ties, China's ambassador to Italy attended the concert.

Diplomacy through music
It is not the first time that classical music has served a diplomatic purpose. In February, the New York Philharmonic played in North Korea.

The Chinese orchestra played for the Italian Senate in 2004 but did not stop at the Vatican then. Still, Yu called that performance a first step toward performing for the Vatican.

"I'm not in politics but everybody feels that music can bring peace and love to peoples," he said, speaking in English at a hotel near Rome.

Yu, who studied in Berlin, said earlier that he planned to greet Benedict in the pontiff's native German.

Before the concert, violinist Chan Zhao said she was "very honored, very moved and a little bit nervous."

The orchestra will also perform in Venice, Italy, and Vienna, Austria.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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