Maestro: John Paul believed music could heal

By Catholic New World
Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sir Gilbert Levine

Sir Gilbert Levine had a one-of-a-kind relationship with Pope John Paul II. He partnered with the pope on historic concerts whose intent was to heal and bring peace.

Levine, who is Jewish, first met John Paul in 1988 when the former was conducting the Kraków Philharmonic in Poland. The two men formed a bond that spanned 17 years.

On April 23, Levine will conduct “Peace Through Music,” a one-time concert celebrating the first anniversary of John Paul’s beatification and will feature the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Chorus and a quartet of international vocal soloists.

Through this concert Levine hopes to continue the work he started with John Paul. He spoke with editor Joyce Duriga about his relationship with the pontiff and the April 23 concert.

Catholic New Word: You’ve said in interviews and in your book “The Pope’s Maestro” that Pope John Paul II was the third priest you ever met.

Sir Gilbert Levine: The first one was the cardinal archbishop of Krakow. It’s not surprising because Poland is such an incredibly Catholic country. And Krakow was ruled in 1987 by the Communist Party, or so they thought. But an equally important body was the church.

Cardinal Franciszek Macharski (then archbishop of Krakow) felt it was very important to him to meet this new American conductor coming to Poland in the depths of the Cold War. I was under constant surveillance by the Communist Party and by the Secret Police. Cardinal Macharski opened his study to me, sat me down and really made me feel at home.

At the end of that interview he told me “You must tell all that you told me to the Holy Father.” I had no idea what he was talking about. It was inconceivable to me.

Then I came back from Christmas vacation that year and found on my desk a note telling me basically, not asking me, to go to Rome and to call a priest. I was given two names. One didn’t answer and the other was Msgr. Stanisław Dziwisz, the pope’s private secretary. He was the second priest I ever met in the Apostolic Palace.

The third priest was the pope. What was astonishing about that was I was warned that if I ever did get to meet the pope it would be a wonderful occasion. I was admonished “Don’t prepare anything, there won’t be anything to say. The whole encounter will be 10 seconds long.”

Instead of that, breaking all protocol, the pope had me into his private library for what’s called a tête-à-tête, just the two of us. It was such a remarkable encounter.

But again I thought that was the end of it. I thought that was an extraordinary experience for a lifetime. He had other things in mind and the relationship grew and lasted 17 incredible years during which I conducted concerts for him, both at the Vatican and around the world, all to foster the notion that we are all brothers, that all men are brothers, and that what divides us is so much less important than what unites us. That was the motivating force of what he thought it was that music could do.

I did concerts in Munich, Paris, London, Seoul, Korea, for the Eucharistic Congress of Asian bishops. I was doing things that never in my wildest imagination did I think that I would be doing to use music in a way that he thought was very powerful to bring people together.

That is what the Chicago concert is about — bringing people together in the spirit of John Paul.

CNW: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between music and faith and God?

Levine: If you think about where music came from, music first became part of Western culture in Gregorian chant. It was to give voice to prayer. Obviously not all music is sacred but it comes from that root, it comes from that wish on our part to express the power of our spirit in some form other than words.

What John Paul believed was that music could transcend words, that where words failed because they can be misconstrued, music can unite and give us that sense of combined, united spirit of what I would call at-onement, literally being at one with each other. I think that is a powerful role that music has had for centuries, and still has today.

It can have that, even, for instance, in a work like the “Eroica” symphony by Beethoven, which is not on its surface a sacred work, but expresses the height of the spirit of the world, of the spirit of mankind. That’s why it is on the concert program. It was described by a great Italian philosopher as being a description of one who describes the spirit of the world. I can think of nobody in my understanding of history who exemplified that more than John Paul.

An incredible thing about John Paul was that he was that before 2 million people at Mass in the open air and he was that person in person. His caring for human beings was incredibly powerful. He cared for my children. He was interested in them as if they were his grandchildren.

He cared for my mother-in-law who was a Holocaust survivor and whom I really believe he soothed the soul of after the incredible pain she had witnessing 40 of her relatives murdered by the Nazis. He really saved her in the profound sense that one can be saved as a human being. He brought peace to her as if she were his aunt or his sister. He just had that incredible power to reach into our souls and bring out the best that is in us.

I felt that is what he did with me. I certainly had looked forward to a wonderful career as a musician. I was already very successful in that before I went to Krakow but he brought out things in me that I didn’t even know were there. He did that for many people.

CNW: How did knowing him change your life or strengthen your faith?

Levine: Well that’s the weird thing because when I went to Krakow we were reformed Jews. We were adherent to the notion of our Jewishness and not very much to what it really meant to be Jewish. But over the course of those 17 years we became Orthodox and we attend an Orthodox synagogue and light Shabbat candles.

He loved that. He gave us a menorah that had been given to him by a rabbi. He said, “I understand the rabbi’s meaning by giving it to me. He’s sharing a totem, an item, of his faith. But you, maestro, will use it with your family. You’ll light these candles. You’ll celebrate. You’ll use this menorah for it’s real purpose.”

He celebrated people’s faith. If your faith was strong, that was what was important. I assure you, if I had indicated that I was interested in converting, he would have been the first to have been proud to do it. But he felt and knew that my faith and my adherence was to Judaism and he was so proud of that — that I was a man of faith.

He was brought up in Wadowice with Jews. Wadowice was a town that was one-third Jewish. ... Jews were completely normal people. When the Holocaust came he really lost deeply meaningful friends.

So, for him, the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism was, as he said, as our elder brothers in faith, as he called them. They were brothers. And what he believed was that we could agree to disagree agreeably. I think that is a powerful message that he lived in his life and radiated in everything that he did.

CNW: Will this concert be accessible to people who may not go to the symphony regularly?

Levine: I think that’s the special thing about it because they will come and they will understand, even better than people who go to the symphony, what the real meaning behind these pieces is — what Bach was thinking when he wrote the “Magnificat.” He wasn’t just writing this beautiful piece of music, he was setting a prayer. And he was Lutheran and he set the prayer in Latin, which was just amazing.

They will listen to “Eroica,” which is on the top-10 hit parade of all classical music. Those people who come to Symphony Hall for the first time will experience it maybe with a degree of understanding of the spirit of the work that Beethoven had when he wrote it. Beethoven was a devout Catholic.

I think people who come will be surprised and amazed at how this amalgamation of John Paul and classical music raises them up also. They will walk out feeling better about the world from having known John Paul in their lives, in the memory and also the in living nature of his spirit and the music that we perform that encapsulates and encompasses that spirit.