Conductor Gilbert Levine reflects on his musical
and personal relationship with Pope John Paul II.
If Gilbert Levine had fulfilled his lifelong dream to spend his days making music, but never conducted some of the world’s leading orchestras — dayenu. It would have been enough.
If he had gone to Poland in 1987 as artistic director of the Krakow Philharmonic, the first American to lead an orchestra in still-communist Eastern Europe, but never met Pope John Paul II — dayenu.
If he had collaborated with the Polish-born pontiff on a series of concerts over the next 17 years, but never became a world-traveling, baton-wielding ambassador of peace, knighted by the pope — dayenu.
Levine’s life is a series of dayenus.
“After each step, I said dayenu,” he says, sitting in the study of his Upper East Side apartment, which is lined with framed posters of his historic concerts.
In his new memoir “The Pope’s Maestro” (Jossey-Bass), Levine relates a life of dayenus, the improbable tale of a Jewish boy who grew up in Brooklyn near Ebbetts Field, went on to become a guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony, and eventually became a confidante of the princes of the Catholic Church.
Levine, 62, wrote the book, his first — “Probably my last,” he says — at the urging of myriad friends who knew of the unique relationship he had built with Pope John Paul II, the pope who apologized for anti-Semitism and established the Vatican’s ties with Israel. “People had been asking me to write the book since 1995,” after an “incredible reaction” to the internationally televised “Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah.” It took him a decade to decide “the book was ready.”
He searched his memory and the “voluminous notes” he had taken after each meeting with John Paul and with other prominent figures in the Church. “I knew I was living history.”
“The Pope’s Maestro” reads like the work of a trained author. It virtually wrote itself, Levine says. Like a composer who hears notes in his head, he heard phrases. “It was almost as if I was being dictated the words.”
In chapters that divide “the seventeen most privileged years” of his life into Ave Maria, Kaddish, Creation and Resurrection — allusions both to religious concepts and musical compositions — Levine tells how his appointment to the Krakow Philharmonic, as “a guinea pig” when no American had taken such a post behind the Iron Curtain, led to an audience with John Paul II, after a unbeknownst vetting by the Archbishop of Krakow.
“Up until that time,” Levine writes, “I’d never even met a Catholic priest in my life.”
Then came the invitation to the Vatican.
Vatican consignetti advised Levine to expect a short, formal public meeting. “There won’t be time for anything more than formalities,” one American diplomat said. Instead, accompanied by his wife, Vera, he was ushered, alone, into the Vatican’s inner sanctum, to the pope’s private library.
“Maestro, I know your story,” John Paul II declared. “We must talk.”
They had, Levine says, “a real conversation,” in English, though Levine made an effort in German, “thinking that would be easier for him.” John Paul II asked about Levine’s work in Krakow, about the city, about his feelings as a Jew living in Poland, about his Holocaust survivor mother-in-law.
Then, Levine writes, “I said something which came from the depths of my soul. Something I had not rehearsed. As if it were another person, I heard myself say: ‘I believe, Your Holiness, that it is you who can achieve the coming together of our two peoples after so many centuries of misunderstanding and of hope. I believe you were sent here by God to do just that.”
The pope was silent.
The Maestro was chagrined.
How could he, a stranger, a Jew, a layman, have the chutzpah to tell the leader of a billion Catholics what his God-given mission was?
“You will never see this man again — never,” Levine thought to himself.
End of audience. The pope posed for pictures with Levine and his wife.
The meeting, it turned out, had been a success. Months afterwards, Levine received an invitation to conduct a Vatican concert in December 1988, celebrating John Paul II’s 10th anniversary as pope, “by far the most important concert I had conducted.”
Several meetings between Levine and the pope followed, as did several concerts under the pope’s auspices. Most had a theme of mutual respect, between Judaism and Christianity, and, after 9/11, Islam. “I didn’t do the things I did for the Vatican for the money,” Levine says. He had found a mission, juggling his Vatican assignments with other conducting jobs around the world. He had an entrée to the Church that few Jews did. “It wasn’t another conducting job.”
In John Paul II, a music lover and former actor, Levine found a sympathetic ear. “He understood the power of my art,” a shared language without words, Levine says. “He understood what music could do.”
Levine grows silent when answering questions about the pope. He hesitates to call his relationship with the pope a friendship, but one of John Paul’s confidants in Krakow, now a cardinal, does.
When Levine and John Paul II were together, it was always “Maestro” or “Your Holiness.” In conversations with others, the pope “referred to me as ‘Gilbert,’” the French way, “with a soft G,” Levine says.
To Levine’s surprise, and to the surprise of his Jewish friends, the pope never suggested that the conductor, “a proud Jew,” consider Catholicism. Not a word about conversion. John Paul II respected Levine’s growing religious observance, once giving him a bronze menorah as a gift.
“I learned to be a faithful Jew from him because of his profound spirituality,” says Levine, who was often accompanied to his papal meeting by his wife, mother-in-law and two sons.
Levine was invested as Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great in 1994, earning him the title of “Sir” and making him the first American Jew so knighted by the Vatican. In 2005, he received another papal honor, the Silver Star of Saint Gregory, the highest rank of pontifical nobility achieved by a Jew. The star was awarded in Washington by Benedict XVI, but the awarding process had begun under John Paul II.
There are no photographs of John Paul II in Levine’s study.
“I have him in my mind,” he says. Pictures, “I don’t need.”
What qualified him — a graduate of Juilliard, Princeton and Yale with music degrees, someone “with no training or preparation, not even a one-day State Department course” — to work successfully as a statesman?
Instinct, he says. “The fact that I had no diplomatic training was helpful.” He didn’t know what, according to protocol, was verboten. “I was completely on my own. You don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re asked to do it.”
“Gilbert’s work was essential in that it broadened Jewish-Catholic relations beyond the clerical and theological to the cultural, where all can meet as equals,” says Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland. “Gilbert’s passion for music is inspirational to all, which makes him a perfect emissary for reconciliation.”
Does Levine pinch himself that he lived the experiences he describes in his book?
“Every day. Every day.”
Does he believe that he too was sent here to improve ties between Jews and Catholics?
“I believe this now,” he says. “God put me in this position. It was bashert [destiny] that I was there.”
“Maybe I could help in bringing about this long overdue reconciliation,” he wrote about his growing relationship with the pope, “between my people and his. I had come to Krakow and met the Pope to fulfill some larger purpose.”
“I’ve had a unique career,” Levine says. Any step along the way “would be enough” — dayenu.
“It’s important that you live your own journey. I have lived my own journey,” he says. “I feel blessed.”