Investment banker, philanthropist, and trustee emeritus John Studzinski ’78 has commissioned more than twenty sacred works of music through the Genesis Foundation, a nonprofit he set up seventeen years ago to support young artists, directors, playwrights, actors and musicians in the early stages of their professional lives.
The latest work to be commissioned has made history. On April 22, 2018, the Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan’s hour-long setting of the thirteenth-century hymn, Stabat Mater, became the first concert to be live-streamed from the Sistine Chapel, where it was performed beneath Michelango’s masterpieces.
The concert, which was organized and funded by the Genesis Foundation, was broadcast live on Facebook by the British commercial radio station Classic FM. “It was set up to accommodate 500,000 viewers,” said Studzinski, “but the site crashed twice because so many people tried to tune in globally.” The performance is available to watch on demand until May 22, and within two weeks of the concert, said Studzinski, more than five million people had listened to it, a large proportion of whom are under thirty years of age. “I really want to expose young audiences to sacred music,” he added, “because it’s a way for people to discover things about themselves that perhaps they didn’t know or appreciate.”
He said it was a “powerful, spiritual experience” sitting in such a striking location and listening to MacMillan’s setting of the medieval text, which describes the anguish of Mary as she watches her son die on the cross. “Beyond the biblical references, this is a universal statement which is timely and topical today: It’s about mothers watching their children die, whether it’s through chemical attacks, terrorism, or being gunned down on the streets of America.”
A committed Roman Catholic and a Papal Knight, Studzinksi decided to commission a new Stabat Mater after seeing a performance in Salzburg of the nineteenth century Italian composer Gioachino Rossini’s setting of the hymn, and being distinctly unimpressed (he described it as “hideously chocolate box.”) “I decided it was time we had another Stabat Mater for the twenty-first century, so I texted James [MacMillan] and asked him to write one.” The work was premiered in London, to great critical acclaim, in 2016. It was performed by The Sixteen (one of the world’s most renowned choirs), and the Britten Sinfonia, under the direction of the celebrated British conductor and choral scholar Harry Christophers.
After the success of the London performance, and the CD recording that was released the following year, Studzinski set his sights on a Vatican premiere. “I told several cardinals I wanted to pursue this.” Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster was among those impressed by the London performance, and he sent a copy of the CD to Pope Francis himself, who was similarly moved.
“The Papal household on one level is very complex but on another level is also very pragmatic,” said Studzinski, “and this is such a high quality piece of music with high quality performers, that we got the go-ahead.” Since the event, he has received letters from people far and wide, some of whom were at the concert, some of whom watched it online, describing it as a “transformational experience, both spiritually and emotionally.”
Studzinski, who funded the construction in 2007 of the recital hall at Bowdoin College that bears his name, is now looking forward to his next collaboration with MacMillan. He describes it as “a choral symphony to the Holy Spirit,” which is expected to receive its premiere at a leading European festival in 2019.
Click here to watch the performance of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater in the Sistine Chapel. This link will expire on May 22, 2018.