On April 15th, Rochester photographer and music librarian Gerry Syzmanski felt a visceral reaction to watching Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames. “To see this world treasure burning," he said, "to have the fire shooting into the sky and the spire falling down was incredibly moving.” A friend of his, Michael Philipson, felt the same way. “It looked like, you know, one of those Dan Brown movies The Da Vinci Code or like the end of the earth.”
Philipson heard the news on the radio and then turned on the television, marveling at the sound of Parisians singing as firefighters battled the blaze. “What can I do?” he remembers wondering. “I’m thousands of miles away and what can I do? What can a regular person do?” He called Syzmanski and suggested they put on a concert to support the restoration of the organ at Notre Dame.
For both Francophiles, Notre Dame Cathedral is the epicenter of Western music.
Szymanski explained, “A lot of folks don’t know this is really where Western classical music started with Léonin and Perontin in the 1100s and 1200s. They were the first folks that we knew of by name in a place that created a music with harmony. Before that it was pretty much all Gregorian chant. They (the Notre Dame School composers) started experimenting with adding multiple voices singing different pitches.”
To medieval ears, Philipson says, this harmony was radical. “People thought lascivious voices were coming together. This is of the devil, they said, but at the same time they were, I think, also pleasantly surprised. They said it sounded like angels or sirens, so it was this evil and good thing.” He says the fire has given him fresh appreciation for our shared human history.
“Many terrible things happened at Notre Dame,” Philipson said, “but many beautiful things, too. For me it’s not about it being a Catholic church. It’s about the feeling when you enter that space. Imagine the first pilgrims coming from mud huts on the plains of France from a farm walking into these cathedrals. They must’ve thought they were in heaven with the glass and the height in the incense. It was otherworldly! The whole musical tradition is hugely important to the world.”
Szymanski and Philipson have organized a concert to raise funds to help with the repair and restoration of the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris this Sunday, May 5 at 7:00pm at Third Presbyterian Church, East Ave at Meigs in Rochester. Performers will include organists James Kealey, Peter DuBois, David Higgs; trumpeter Douglas Prosser; pianist Christopher Petit, The Joe Taff Singers, Robert Swenson, Mary Mowers, and many others.
In addition to Sunday's concert, on Friday, May 3rd, the Eastman-Rochester Chorus will accept donations for Notre Dame Cathedral during a free performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, Chichester Psalms, and the Missa Solemnis by Franz Liszt. That concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.