During the end of the Cold War, Gilbert Levine ’71 was invited to become music director and conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic. As an American Jew whose grandparents had emigrated from Poland and whose mother-in-law’s entire family was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he initially did not jump at the offer. But he did accept, and his time in that position, from 1987 to 1993, led to his meeting Pope John Paul II and beginning a musical and spiritual friendship that would span 17 years. In his memoir, The Pope’s Maestro (Jossey-Bass), Levine chronicles that collaboration, the concerts he created and conducted for the pope, and their shared belief in the power of music to bring peace and heal religious wounds. He has been honored with the highest Pontifical Knighthood accorded a non-ecclesiastical musician since Mozart. Levine spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.
Why did you hesitate to accept the position with the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987?
I had serious reservations on two grounds. One was the fact that it was very serious communist times. We now see in retrospect it was dissolving, but that’s not the way it looked in 1987. My wife came from the communist east, she was a refugee from Czechoslovakia. My mother-in-law had lost more than more than 40 relatives in the Holocaust. And Poland was where many of the worst of concentration and annihilation camps were located. It is just haunted by memories. A lot of that political and historical weight was very heavily on my mind.
So why did you finally decide to go?
Artistically it was an offer that was too good to turn down. The Krakow Philharmonic was a great Central European orchestra. From a historical perspective, as my mother-in-law said, “You must go back because we lived.” Hitler tried to kill all memory of the Jews. She thought it was very important that I go back. And from the communist perspective, there was something crazy in my mind that [said] I am not going to be put off by that. The oppressive nature of the communist regime was not easy. I was a functionary of the Polish government. And they felt they wanted and needed to control my every move.
You had a number of private meetings and experiences with Pope John Paul II. Can you describe a couple of the most memorable?
There are two that capture the range of our relationship. One was when I was conducting in Denver for World Youth Day [in 1993]. He wanted to play a joke on me. He crept up behind me while I was conducting in front of 500 Catholic kids and stopped the whole show. First the basses and the cellos and violas and [then] the whole orchestra stopped. Finally I look over my shoulder, and there is the pope with a grin on his face. He had been imitating my conducting behind me. He put his arm around me and said, “Did I disturb you?” The second memory is after Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. I was called to the Vatican to meet with the pope in his private chapel, a place many cardinals don’t know exists. I was brought in there to commune privately and silently in wordless prayer with him. It was his attempt to understand and to share with me his grief at the assassination. He said to me, “With him gone can there be peace?” From that warmth and human outreach to that desire to bring me into his most intimate prayer life is the range of what our relationship encompassed.
You came up with the idea for the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah in 1994 in Rome, which the pope immediately embraced. What sticks out in your mind about that concert?
Two things. The pope received each and every survivor [of the Holocaust] who came from around the world, and allowed them to speak. Some couldn’t. But some told their story in short form. And he listened to every one. Even with nudgings from his staff that time was over for this audience, he continued and listened in whatever language they spoke. The other was the concert itself, which was like a night of Jewish prayer in the Vatican. He said, “They are here with us. The victims … they are us. They are humankind.” … If you went, as I did, to synagogues around the country before that concert, people in the synagogues would talk about the terrible relationship between Catholics and Jews. And if you went in the years after that, the atmosphere changed because people agreed to disagree agreeably and to talk about their differences in a way that’s peaceable.
You write that you felt the pope was using you to reach across religious divides and through music bring healing.
The pope understood that music was a way to bring us together, and in a world rife with religious strife to find a way of peace. Music was, as he called it, a way for us to go forward as human beings.
How did your friendship and collaboration with the pope change you and your music making?
I listen better than I ever did before. I believe that music making is as much about listening as it is about producing music. That you listen to what an orchestra gives and then you add your impetus. And that makes a performance larger than the sum of its parts. The pope was one of the greatest listeners I’ve ever seen. His most frequent pose was with his left hand holding his head looking directly into your eyes and listening to every word you were saying. I’m more patient than I was and I have a greater understanding of the spiritual impetus behind music as well. Even in [a] Beethoven symphony, which is not ostensibly liturgical, there is a spiritual element. I am more attuned to that than I’ve ever been before.
How did the pope influence your Jewish faith and identity?
In 17 years he never suggested [that I become Catholic]. I think if he had sensed a questioning of my Jewish faith, he would have been only too happy to do that. But in fact, my Jewish faith deepened, and he sensed that and encouraged it. Someone gave him a menorah as a gift and he in turn gave it to me. And he said, “You will use it in the practice of your faith. It’s very important that you use it to celebrate this festival.” …
When his private secretary came up to me after the very first audience [I had with the pope], and said, “His Holiness wishes me to tell you he thinks you have a great soul,” my jaw was on the floor. … I think it was the real John Paul judging people by who they were as people and not as labels. I think we can all learn enormous lessons from that.
Interview has been condensed.