Sir Gilbert Levine “never set out to become friends with a pope,” said the world-renowned conductor, a Jew originally from Flatbush.
Instead, Levine believes that his first meeting with Pope John Paul II, and the incredible string of events that meeting set into action, were “bashert.”
Levine, whose 17-year relationship with John Paul is chronicled in his new book, “The Pope’s Maestro,” was in Pittsburgh this week to speak with the media, and meet some old friends. Pittsburghers will remember him as the conductor who took the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to play the Papal Concert of Reconciliation in 2004, bestowing upon the PSO the honor of being the first American orchestra to ever play at the Vatican.
The first American Jew to be knighted by a pope, Levine’s relationship with the late-pontiff has been described as “a deep spiritual friendship” by Cardinal Dziwisz, secretary to John Paul for 30 years.
Levine’s story is as improbable as it is fascinating, beginning in 1987, when he agreed to assume the position of music director of the Krakow Philharmonic.
“The decision to go to Krakow was crazy,” Levine told the Chronicle. “It was the middle of the Cold War. The secret police never wanted me there. They thought I was a CIA plant.”
Still, Levine, who had already made a name for himself conducting some of the great orchestras in the world, decided to follow a path “that didn’t look promising, but was really interesting,” he said. “There was nothing right about that appointment, and everything right about it.”
Krakow, he found, had become “a museum of the dead, a ghost ship.” While the physical remnants of a once vibrant Jewish community remained in tact, the population itself had dwindled to only about 200, the end result of both the Holocaust, and the pogrom of 1968. Levine often found himself as the 10th man at minyans.
Although unknown to him at the time, Levine is certain there was a reason he ended up in Krakow.
“I went there not to meet the pope,” he said. “A journey is what you find when you have no idea what the goal is.”
John Paul II, who was born in Poland in 1920, and witnessed Jewish friends victimized by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, soon heard about Levine’s musical appointment in Krakow, and decided to meet him.
“He said, ‘I want to meet this crazy guy who goes up the down escalator,’” Levine said of John Paul. “The fact that I was Jewish and I was an artist played into it.”
In 1988, the Vatican extended an invitation to Levine to meet the pope. He was told he would be quickly introduced to the pontiff, that a few pictures would be taken, and that nothing would be said.
Instead, he was received in John Paul’s private library, an honor usually reserved for heads of state.
And the meeting was private.
“He chose to begin a relationship on a most profound and serious level,” Levine said.
They spoke of the Krakow Orchestra, and Jewish history in Poland, They spoke of Levine’s mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor. Then, without forethought, Levine spoke the following works to the pontiff:
“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 looked down, and did not respond, Levine recalled, admitting his words to John Paul were “chutzpadik.” Levine feared he had “crossed a line.”
Instead, just a few months later, the pope invited Levine to conduct a concert to commemorate the 10th anniversary of John Paul’s pontificate.
After that, the pope encouraged Levine to follow through on his idea to conduct a concert at a Polish synagogue that had been used as a stable by the Nazis. At the concert, when a Jesuit priest apologized for the events of the Holocaust, “a light went on in my head,” Levine said. “I thought, maybe this is all bashert.”
In 1994, the pope asked Levine to conduct a concert in commemoration of the Holocaust at the Vatican. Wanting to reach out to the Jewish community, but unsure of how such a gesture would be received, he asked Levine whether, if he held such a concert, “would there be a hand there to meet mine?”
In fact, holding a concert in commemoration of the Holocaust at the Vatican was controversial for many Jewish organizations, Levine said. But, it turned out to be a historic event.
“We held it on Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day),” Levine recalled. “It was perfect. Not only did the concert take place, but it was a world event because the pope was hosting it. Richard Dreyfus recited the kaddish. It was a night for Jewish prayer in the Vatican.”
The pope spoke to each of 150 survivors in attendance that night, listening to all of their stories.
Until 2004, Levine held many concerts for the pope, earning the moniker of the “pope’s maestro.” In 1994, John Paul invested Levine as a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great, the highest papal knighthood accorded to a non-ecclesiastical musician since Mozart.
Following the events of 9/11, John Paul decided to host a papal concert of reconciliation at the Vatican, to promote reconciliation among believers in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The concert, which was to be broadcast worldwide, included the Mahler Second Symphony (Resurrection) as well as “Abraham,” which Levine commissioned from the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Harbison. Wanting to perform the concert with an American orchestra, Levine chose the PSO.
Levine wanted to use the PSO not only because of the caliber of its musicians, but also because he had read that the orchestra was experiencing some financial difficulties.
“Now here is a mitzva,” Levine recalled thinking. “An American orchestra in need.”
Levine conducted the PSO in the concert at Heinz Hall as well as at the Vatican — his last concert for John Paul — remembering the pride in Pittsburgh at the time.
“It was the perfect ending,” Levine said. “I went to Krakow alone. I ventured a trail full of thorns. Then I brought the Pittsburgh Symphony to Rome, and the spirit of John Paul back to Pittsburgh.”
“I think this city is still a city of deep faith,” Levine said of Pittsburgh. “And it still breathes that spirit of Rome.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)