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Reconciliation through music
archived from: 2010-12-29
by: Patricia Bartos

Friendship with John Paul II changed Sir Gilbert Levine’s life

His years of friendship and collaboration with Pope John Paul II were among the most profound of his life, Sir Gilbert Levine writes in his new book, “The Pope’s Maestro.”

Levine initiated and proposed to the pope the famed concert of reconciliation among Christians, Jews and Muslims that he presented with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the Vatican in early 2004, celebrating the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s papacy.

The concert, featuring Mahler’s Second Symphony “Resurrection” as the centerpiece, commemorated Pope John Paul’s work in promoting interfaith outreach among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

It was the first time a U.S. orchestra performed at the Vatican.

Just four days before that concert, he led the Pittsburgh orchestra in a “Reconciliation Between Jews, Christians and Muslims” concert at Heinz Hall.

His friendship with the pope, Levine said, “transformed my art and my faith in inestimable ways.

“It taught me many things: the power of music and spirit to foster hope, transformation, healing and love. The mysteries of faith, not one faith but three — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The potential for reconciliation and redemption even in the face of the sadness and violence of both the past and the present.”

The Pittsburgh ties continued.

Just six months after the papal concert, Levine returned to Pittsburgh as guest conductor for the symphony’s production of Verdi’s “Requiem,” again with the Mendelssohn Choir.

Levine recalled recently how alive the city became with the recognition and its association with the papal concert.

When he entered a taxicab on arriving at the local airport, the driver responded, “You’re that guy,” Levine recalled with delight.

“It ignited the city in such a wonderful way,” he said. “Nothing could prepare me for the way the whole Pittsburgh community embraced that event as its own.”

And in early 2006 Levine again conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in concert at St. Paul Cathedral in Haydn’s “Creation” as part of the cathedral’s 100th anniversary year. The Mendelssohn Choir also participated.

Levine said of the Vatican reconcilation concert that he wanted a U.S. orchestra because “no country better represents the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths and embodies a society of tolerance.”

And he personally selected the Pittsburgh Symphony because of its standing as one of the finest in the country.

Levine selected the Mahler piece because it focuses on the soul’s path to resurrection. The pope agreed, because of its theme of “where the soul is reaching to everlasting life, an idea common to all three religions.”

Levine’s association with the pope traces to his becoming conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987. The pope had served in Krakow before his election to the papacy.

Levine led a concert of reconciliation in a synagogue in Krakow, and he later conducted the “Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust” in the Vatican in 1994. The pope, Levine said, “recognized that music was a way to bring forward these themes.”

In 1996, he marked the pope’s anniversary with the concert at the Vatican.

Levine, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., had served as guest conductor with major orchestras around the world. But his appointment in Krakow changed his life when the local archbishop arranged a meeting with the pope. Levine recalled being told that the meeting would last for just seconds, but he was shocked to find himself invited into the pope’s private rooms.

“I said something which came from the depths of my soul,” he said. “Something I had not rehearsed nor could have imagined I would ever have the chutzpah to say to anyone, let alone the pope:

“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 hate. I believe you were sent by God to do just that.”

The pope, surprised, said nothing for long minutes — and then surprised Levine again by asking him to conduct a concert to mark his anniversary.

The relationship grew. The Vatican concert for Holocaust survivors, drew many survivors, including his own mother-in-law, who had lost 40 family members in the Holocaust. Levine recalled the pope greeting her and holding her hand, noting that she had found peace through the commemoration.

The pope was moved by the experience of welcoming the survivors, Levine said. “He had seen what had happened to their fellow Jews in the terrible years of the war whose horrors he had also personally witnessed.”

Levine was an invited guest at John Paul’s funeral, where he was seated among those close to the pope. A nun who had worked with the pope greeted him. “You meant so much to him,” she said.

“The Pope’s Maestro” by Sir Gilbert Levine. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco (www.josseybass.com, 1-800-956-7739), 2010, 466 pages, $27.95.




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