It was a performance that pianist David George called a lifetime honor and a career high, and he’s still reeling from it.
After all, it’s not every day you get to play for the pope.
George, an alum of UofL’s School of Music and longtime staff pianist for the school’s vocal department and clarinet studio, performed on stage Sept. 27 at the papal Mass in Philadelphia. Nearly one million people were estimated to have attended the last major event of Pope Francis’s five-day trip to the U.S.
“It was something I never thought would happen. Who would imagine playing for the pope? It was bigger than life. It was overwhelming,” George said.
George was invited to accompany Anthony Kearns, a member of the famed Irish Tenors. Kearns, a devout Catholic, has performed for a number of dignitaries, including three U.S. presidents and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg as well as at President Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
George met Kearns about two years ago, when he was asked to accompany the singer during The Bourbon Affair fundraiser at the Pendennis Club. Kearns was impressed and invited George to perform with him again on other occasions.
Kearns told Wave3 News that when he learned he was singing at such a huge and important event, he knew who to call.
“I said, ‘I need a pair of steady hands … someone who is calm as backup behind me should anything go wrong,'” Kearns said.
As it turns out, that inner-calm served George well, as the event was a bit hectic. There was no sound check and the show was compressed from five songs to three.
The stage was set up on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art of “Rocky” movie fame, and there were throngs of people as far as the eye could see.
“I saw the crowd and still couldn’t take it in,” George said. “I had to see aerial photos to fully appreciate it.”
But once they got going, it was smooth sailing. They played “Shelter Me,” “How Great Thou Art” and “You Raise Me Up,” songs meant to mentally and spiritually prepare the people for Mass.
“I had a little bit of the jitters, but once it starts, you’re in the music,” George said. “I was totally relaxed as I could be and it was just fun.”
George was standing just a few feet from the pope when he entered and was able to take close-range video.
Though he’s not a Catholic, George said he found the pope’s message moving.
“The whole event was very spiritual,” he said.
And, he didn’t mind the rock-star treatment. His credentials allowed him access to areas closed to everyone else.
“We walked anywhere we needed to, right past all the barriers. It was a neat feeling,” he said.