The Pope’s Maestro. Gilbert Levine. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 456 pp. + DVD. ISBN 978-0-4704-9065-5

Reviewed by John T. Pawlikowski

The Pope's Maestro (Hardcover) ~ Gilbert Levine (Author) Cover Art

At the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II on May 1, 2011, a Brooklyn-born Jewish orchestra conductor had an honored seat in the audience. How this came to be for a traditional Jew with little prior contact with Catholic religious leaders is the basic narrative of this volume told from a first person perspective by Levine.

Levine’s grandparents emigrated to the United States from Poland. His mother-in-law is a survivor of Auschwitz.  He has been a distinguished conductor who has performed with leading orchestras in North America, Europe, and Israel. In 1987 Levine was invited to serve as a guest conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic for one week. This is where his story begins.

Poland was a complicated location for Levine given his family history and the fact of the Communist government then in power, which exercised a heavy hand in controlling arts and culture.  He felt he was being watched for the entirety of his stay.

As a result of this guest conductor’s role he was approached by Krzysztof Penderecki, a renowned composer as well as the dominant figure in the Polish official musical establishment of the time. Penderecki greeted Levine’s efforts in leading the Krakow orchestra with considerable enthusiasm. At a post-concert reception he suddenly startled Levine with the question, “Why don’t you consider becoming the lead conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic?”

Levine initially reacted to the supposed offer as though it was a joke. But Penderecki insisted he saw it as a realistic possibility. In terms of the political situation in Poland at the time Penderecki was in a position to pull off such an arrangement. For Levine, however, the political landscape also brought up major issues. Would he want to live in a Communist regime for several months a year? And what about his family in New York – would he have to be away from them for several months each year? And the low pay scale in Poland at the time was also a factor he had to consider.

But Levine’s Polish roots made this an offer he could not merely put aside despite the many obstacles that stood in the way. He decided to discuss the proposal with close friends and with officials at the United States Consulate in Krakow. Most of Levine’s friends treated the offer as a joke. The U. S. officials made it clear to him that they could not protect him against “harassment” by the Polish government.

Despite the many challenges the Polish music directorship presented for Levine he decided in the end to accept the offer. His first concert as music director took place in December 1987 in Krakow with Mahler’s Third Symphony as a central piece.

Shortly after taking up the role of music director word reached Levine that certain Vatican officials wished to meet with him. So Levine went off to Rome where he was introduced to Pope John Paul II’s top aides such as Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, now the Archbishop of Krakow. This initial meeting during which Monsignor Dziwisz conveyed the Pope’s serious interest in the work of Levine in the Pope’s almost native Krakow. Levine was also to meet with Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, as well as Cardinal William Keeler, the head of the U. S. Bishops’ Commission on Catholic-Jewish relations. Eventually these developing Catholic institutional contacts led to an invitation to meet with Pope John Paul II himself. That meeting took place in February 1988.

After this initial face-to-face meeting during which the Pope expressed admiration for Levine’s work and his joy that Levine had taken charge of the Krakow Philharmonic. A relationship ensued between the Pope and Levine which lasted some seventeen years. This relationship culminated with his designation as a papal knight in 1994.

The seventeen years of friendship between Levine and the Pope brought about a series of landmark classical music concerts at the Vatican and elsewhere. For Levine this collaboration proved transformative, including an enhancement of his own Jewish religious identity (he joined an Orthodox synagogue). While we have no direct expression of the papal reaction to this relationship it appears that Pope John Paul II saw this unique relationship as one central part of his promotion of improved Catholic-Jewish relations, which became a hallmark of his papacy.

The high point of Levine’s collaboration with the Pope was the extraordinary papal concert to commemorate the victims and survivors of the Shoah, which was held at the Vatican on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in 1994. I myself had the opportunity to speak with some Holocaust survivors who attended the concert.  To a person they spoke of how truly reconciling and healing it was for them. At the candle lighting ceremony that opened the concert one of the survivors who participated was in fact Levine’s mother-in-law, who lost some forty members of her family during the Holocaust. Clearly the Levine-papal cooperation had achieved a remarkable level of success.

Overall this volume tells a remarkable story of human transformation.  It is very well written and follows a chronological order.

The book also contains a DVD.  Certainly this brings another dimension to Levine’s story and musical skills.  It is a wonderful addition that clearly enriches the text of the volume.

The fundamental drawback of the volume is its overly enthusiastic evaluation of Pope John Paul II’s record on Catholic-Jewish relations. While no one would expect Levine to undertake such an evaluation, he could have emphasized in an Introduction that his is a highly personal account of a relationship that had an impact beyond the immediate context, but that he leaves to other scholars the task of a more comprehensive evaluation of John Paul II’s papacy, including his role in fostering Catholic-Jewish relations.  Levine also heaps praise on certain Catholic leaders of the time whose role in Catholic reform, including Catholic-Jewish relations, is questionable. In this he comes off as rather naïve. And his ecstatic description of the Vatican chambers sounds like a kid in a toy store, something that few Catholics today would emulate.

For what it does – a description of a profoundly transformative relationship – The Pope’s Maestro does well. Hence Levine’s book is definitely worth a read despite its uncritical assessment of John Paul II’s papacy.

John T. Pawlikowski, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago