The conductor leading the China Philharmonic Orchestra in a landmark concert Wednesday at the Vatican said he feels honored to perform for the pope, saying music breaks down cultural barriers.

Ties between the Vatican and China's communist government have been strained for decades, and the concert could indicate warming relations.

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

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 is leading the 75-member orchestra in Mozart's "Requiem" and a Chinese folk song, "Jasmine Flower."

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

The Vatican, which has said the concert shows music can be a bridge between cultures, said Benedict will give a brief address after the performance. 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 its state-sanctioned Catholic church. Still, many of the country's estimated 12 million Catholics worship in congregations outside the state-approved church.

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 he wants to greet Benedict in the pontiff's native German.

As the musicians readied their instruments for the 25-minute trip to the Vatican, Chan Zhao, a violinist, said she was "very honored, very moved and a little bit nervous."

After the Vatican, the orchestra will move onto Venice, Italy, and Vienna, Austria.