The Polish Pope's Maestro (Part 1)

Interview With Sir Gilbert Levine

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By Kathleen Naab

NEW YORK, MARCH 30, 2011 ( When Gilbert Levine took the job of Artistic Director and Conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987 — coming under the shadow of Communism in the heart of the Cold War — he had no idea his decision would lead to his becoming the “Pope’s Maestro.”

But when Pope John Paul II learned of this young American Jewish conductor in Poland, the seeds of a plan were planted — a plan that would become a 17-year spiritual friendship and collaboration in the rapprochement of Catholics and Jews.

Levine tells of his experiences in his memoir, “The Pope’s Maestro” (Jossey-Bass).

Levine spoke to ZENIT about his book, which he believes carries a lesson from the Polish Pontiff: That with 2,000 years of misunderstanding and “terrible difficulty” between Jews and Catholics, “if you put your mind to it you can begin the process of healing. It’s not overnight. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it can be done.”

Part 2 of this interview, detailing the “miracle” John Paul II worked in Levine’s mother-in-law, will be published Thursday.

ZENIT: Why did you write this book? As a personal friend of Pope John Paul II, you are undoubtedly the envy of millions of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But the book is about more than your personal good fortune.

Levine: Well I didn’t think of myself and I don’t think of myself as a personal friend. Cardinal Dziwisz described me in an interview as having had a deep spiritual friendship, and there was certainly an element of friendship that developed over the years, but the Pope had personal friends — even one very well-known Jewish friend in Jerzy Kluger, whom he had known from Wadowice — so I would never call myself a personal friend, though we had a deep artistic and spiritual, as Cardinal Dziwisz said, relationship. I felt that this was so generous and so remarkable, and so, as you say, unique, that I wanted to tell the story, and the Pope himself encouraged me to tell it, as did Cardinal Dziwisz.

The relationship developed so deeply over so many years — 17 years — and covered so much spiritual ground. I did the very first concert in 1988 and it was all Catholic music, music I had never performed in public before, in a very Catholic setting before an entirely Catholic audience, and that was a journey that I had to make as an artist. And then over the course of the next years, many years, I came, we came, to view music — and he very much, importantly — viewed music as a way to bridge the remarkable history, much of it pained, between Catholics and Jews.

I wrote the book because this is a journey that I think can tell people about our history as Catholics and Jews, as children of Abraham — including Muslims — but also can tell a child or an adolescent, “You can be anything. You can do anything. Anything is possible with the human soul open to others.” And I think that’s a big part of the lesson of this book that the Pope was teaching. That if he and I could develop this kind of trust and friendship, then it was possible for anyone.

I really believe that was the lesson, for instance, from World Youth Day [in Denver], where in front of 500,000 Catholic kids he showed his affection for me, his joking with me. For all those kids and all the bishops who were there and priests with their flock from all over America and many parts of the world, and many of the people from the Curia were there: He was showing them, “You know, I can do this. I have this relationship that’s easy — it’s open, it’s close — with this artist who is Jewish. You can do the same in your home dioceses.” And I think that lesson is very powerful. And I think the lesson of the book is that lesson — of this journey that I had with this incredible man.

ZENIT: So almost a look toward the future — something for new generations to take up …

Levine: Absolutely. I think John Paul was ever the teacher. Was absolutely ever the teacher. And I thought that he was teaching through me, and through the concerts we did — was teaching the world about what was possible. Two thousand years of misunderstanding, of terrible difficulty — and if you put your mind to it you can begin the process of healing. It’s not overnight. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it can be done. And what he believed — and believed powerfully — was that my music and my art, could be as he called it, a way of addressing these deep hurts in the human soul, in the fabric of human relations, and can be a wordless way to find ourselves at one with the other. As I say, he was always teaching everyone, including myself, every day I was privileged to know him.

ZENIT: You recount the experience you had of praying with the Pope. Can you describe that for us?

Levine: It was astonishing, astonishing. [Israeli] Prime Minister Rabin had been assassinated. I was meant to go to the Vatican and visit with various people — sort of, well I wouldn’t call it routine; nothing at the Vatican is routine — but to visit with various people about the projects I was working on. I went to see Monsignor Dziwisz and told him I’d just arrived. I hadn’t seen the Holy Father since I was bestowed the knighthood in 1994, and he [Monsignor Dziwisz] asked if I could come to St. Peter’s Basilica. I was extremely quizzical because I had never been asked to do that. And to make a very long story — but an amazing story — short, I was ushered into the Pope’s private chapel inside St. Peter’s where he was praying silently, sitting on a chair facing a crucifix on the wall. I was positioned to look into him, into his closed eyes — and not towards the wall — and he had wished that. He had thought about that and wished me to pray with him silently. I was drawn powerfully into his prayer.

People talk about the incredible amounts of time he spent praying alone, sometimes prostrate on the floor, in deep prayer, and this was something like that. An incredible, powerful, private prayer.

I went through the prayers in my Jewish background and then the prayer became music and I imagined the Adagio of the Bruckner 9th Symphony, which to me is just wordless communication between Bruckner and his God. Then the Pope was moved forward to kneel on a prie dieu and he was helped by Monsignor Dziwisz to do that. He didn’t look at me — never looked at me — but the connection between us never broke. I was drawn even more deeply into his prayer, into his profound … stillness. There was an incredible stillness in that room. There were two other priests on the wall and they stopped — seemingly stopped — breathing. It was absolutely amazing.

And then, finally, the Pope got up and came to me, reached out his hands to me, grabbed my hands in his and looked me straight in the eye with such power that I closed my eyes. I couldn’t even look him in the eye. And he said, “With him gone, can there be peace?” And he was praying, I think, for the soul of Itzhak Rabin, for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, for the tragedy of the Holy Land that has been the lack of peace there, and it was just absolutely amazing.

I had been so oblivious to what was about to take place that I had brought a VHS tape of the Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust to give him. I had no idea where I was going to go. I felt like such a silly person for doing that — but it didn’t matter because I was drawn into this prayer … And then he rose and breaking off his prayer, as suddenly as you can imagine, the atmosphere changed and he said, “So I hope I didn’t cause you too much jet lag, Maestro, please pardon me.” And then asked about my kids, which he always did, and my mother-in-law, and then was gone. It was absolutely flabbergasting.

I went across the way to the house where Palestrina had lived and worked at the Vatican, across from St. Peter’s, and spoke to a friend of mine, and
said, “Do you have any idea where I was?” She had worked at the Vatican for 25 years and she said she didn’t know it existed.

Then finally I called Monsignor Dziwisz at the end of the day and said, “What was that?” and he said, “Don’t you know, Maestro, we pray to the same God?” It was unbelievable. It was astonishing.

And he had planned the whole thing — the Pope had. It was just breathtaking. And the look on the face of the other two priests, to see me of all people in that private chapel, in that Holy of Holies inside St. Peter’s — they were absolutely astonished, absolutely astonished.

ZENIT: It strikes me — especially combining it with the way that Cardinal Dziwisz summarized it — it strikes me almost as if it symbolizes everything that the Holy Father wanted you and he to accomplish together.

Levine: Absolutely.

ZENIT: It was music and then it came to prayer — to the same God …

Levine: Exactly. And it was this intertwining of music and prayer, music and spirit. Even beyond prayer, it was music and spirit. I always had the impression of John Paul — that it was this incredible stillness, this mystical union that was most profound for him, and in that, we could share. Because it wasn’t about Catholic prayer anymore, and it wasn’t about Jewish prayer anymore. It was about our common devotion to one God. Absolutely amazing.

ZENIT: After all these years, what do you think now of the audacious comment you made at your first meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1988: “I believe, Your Holiness, that it is you who can achieve the coming together of our two peoples [Jews and Christians] … I believe you were sent by God to do just that.” You reflect in your book that it was somewhat audacious: telling the Vicar of Christ “what he was preordained by God to do during his Pontificate.”

Levine: I don’t know who said that (laughing). I don’t know where those words came from, but they were necessary. I didn’t imagine I was going to say anything to him. I was told specifically not to prepare anything to say and that I would be having what’s called a “baciamano” and he would bless me and I would be on my way, and I would have a nice picture for my grandchildren. […] Instead of that, I was ushered into his private library and he clearly had an agenda, and he clearly wanted to get to know me, and to find out who I was.

I felt, if I have this opportunity which will never happen again — I will never be with this man again — I have to say what’s on my soul. I had to say it, and I believed it profoundly, because of where he came from, because he came from Wadowice, because he came from Poland, and because he came from the country that had witnessed the murder of millions of Jews, that he was uniquely in a position to understand that. He witnessed it. He suffered under the Nazi occupation. There were Polish priests who were murdered, many of them his friends, rounded up and murdered. He knew what the Holocaust was firsthand, watching it from the other side of the barbed wire fence. I believed that if anyone could do it, he could do it.

Now, that I would have anything to do with that, that was inconceivable to me at the time. And that was not what I had in mind. I just felt I had to say it, as the son-in-law of Holocaust survivors who had lost 40 members of the family in that horrendous period. I just felt it was incumbent upon me to say it. The crazy thing was — not crazy — the incredibly impacting thing was that he didn’t say a word. That was the last thing that was said in that truly private audience, in that tête-à-tête. He just looked down and was incredibly thoughtful for the longest time. I was sure that I had said the most ridiculous thing to him, that it was a preposterous thing to have said, and that he was waiting to be saved by his papal staff who would get rid of this strange interloper. I was convinced, because he didn’t say a word. He looked almost consternated, because he was so deep in thought.

I think that it was important for me to say. And I don’t know where it came from. I certainly didn’t think of it. It came into my head as a whole thought. You know, when I was writing this book — I am not a writer — so I can’t write as a craft. I can’t sit down and say, well I have three hours this afternoon, I think I’ll write a chapter. I had to wait until in the back of my mind, everything came together — and my wife would know it because it would be three weeks, and my editor would be crazy, and I’d be traveling around the world and come back, and I would show up in my robe in our den, and I would say, “I need a cup of coffee.” And she’d say, “ah-ha!” I would go with the coffee and write a whole chapter, because it was sitting in my unconscious. I believe that by the same token, that phrase, that sentence had sat there, maybe almost from the time I went to Krakow. […]

I think it must have struck a chord that was in fact a voice that was deep in the Pope’s own soul, that maybe there’s something that can be done with this. This strange American has arrived in Poland and maybe he has a role to play. John Paul must have thought that, because instead of throwing me out and never seeing me again, it was the beginning of this spiritual friendship that developed over the next 17 years. Looking back at it, it was as we say in Yiddish, bashert, it was fated, but who would have known? Who could have imagined it?

But he knew. He knew because his vision was so incredibly clear. There’s a picture which you may have seen of him standing on top of a mountain looking out over the Judean hills in his trip to Israel in 2000 and that’s how I see John Paul — as a visionary, a person who looked beyond the valleys and the difficulties, to where the next peak is. How can man and God come together in a powerful way, in different, diverse ways, but in a powerful way? And I think he saw in that crazy sentence the beginnings of what I couldn’t imagine was anything but the end of my relationship.

[Part 2 of this interview will be published Thursday]
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