Sir Gilbert Levine greets Pope John Paul II during a concert the maestro conducted at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. This photo is on the cover of Levine’s 2010 biography, “The Pope’s Maestro,” detailing the nearly 20-year friendship and collaboration between the pope and the conductor. Levine, who is Jewish, was named a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, the highest papal knighthood given to a musician since Mozart.
Sir Gilbert Levine greets Pope John Paul II during a concert the maestro conducted at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. This photo is on the cover of Levine’s 2010 biography, “The Pope’s Maestro,” detailing the nearly 20-year friendship and collaboration between the pope and the conductor. Levine, who is Jewish, was named a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, the highest papal knighthood given to a musician since Mozart.
A week after Sir Gilbert Levine attends the April 27 Vatican Mass at which Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II are declared saints, the noted American conductor will conduct a Washington, D.C. concert to celebrate the canonizations of the two former popes.

Levine - often called "the pope's maestro" because of his nearly two decade friendship and collaboration with Pope John Paul II - will conduct an orchestra, two choirs and several soloists in a May 5 concert at Constitution Hall to celebrate the canonizations of the two beloved popes.

Called "Peace through Music 'In Our Age'," the concert - a joint effort of the Archdiocese of Washington, Georgetown University and the Embassies of Poland, Italy and Argentina - will be recorded for presentation later on PBS and televised throughout the world. The concert's title comes from the Vatican II document "Nostre Aetate" ("In Our Age") which outlined the Church's relationship and dialogue with other religions.

When the concert was first announced in January, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said, "The Archdiocese of Washington is pleased to collaborate in this extraordinary effort to celebrate these two extraordinary men. So much of the world feels a personal bond with both of these popes."

"John XXIII and John Paul II had an extraordinary global impact," Cardinal Wuerl said then. " John XXIII ushered in a whole new era (with Vatican II), and everybody knows John Paul II's impact on this world. They both saw the need for people to come together."

In a later interview with the Catholic Standard, Levin said the concert is an appropriate way to mark the life of the new saint because "John Paul was trying to bring people together in peace through music. This concert is for all people of all faiths. Music, for me, absolutely is the voice of God."

Recalling that "whole world was present at his funeral," Levine said the May 5 concert is "really for everybody, offered in a spirit of peace and love."

It is being offered in Washington, the maestro said, because "the nation's capital represents all of us, and John Paul had a great love for the United States of America."

Levine called the "Peace through Music 'In Our Age' " concert "a culmination to the work I did for John Paul, beginning in 1988."

"The burden of my friendship with John Paul was that I never wanted to let him down. Any idea he had, I wanted to fulfill for him," Levine said of his many collaborations with the pope. "Our relationship was special from the beginning. In 17 years, we spoke nothing but Polish. Our friendship was marked with humor, warmth and the sense of our being comrades. "

Levine, a Brooklyn-born Jew, formed a lasting friendship with John Paul when the maestro was named conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic, where the future pope served as archbishop.

John Paul subsequently invited Levine to conduct a concert at the Vatican to mark the 10th anniversary of the pope's pontificate. Levine also conducted a concert for the pope at 1993's World Youth Day in Denver. In 1994, John Paul commissioned Levine to conduct the now-historic "Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah."

Over the years of John Paul's pontificate, Levine conducted several more concerts for the pope, and in 2004, he led the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a "Papal Concert of Reconciliation." In 2005, Levine conducted a memorial concert for his longtime friend who died April 2 of that year.

The 2004 concert of reconciliation was "an effort at rapprochement on several levels - between Poles and Jews and between Catholics and Jews," Levine said. "He (John Paul) was very involved in that concert and it turned out amazing, incredibly amazing."

Levine, whose family emigrated to the United States from Poland at the end of the 19th century, said he lost about 40 family members in the Holocaust. His mother-in-law, Margit Raab Kalina, was a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp.

Levine recalled that his mother-in-law, who was profoundly affected by her torture and imprisonment by the Nazis, was at first "bewildered" by the conductor's friendship with the pope.

"She lived with a joy that was only half perceived in her life," Levine said of Kalina. "John Paul really cared for her. He took it as his mission to bring her peace."

The pope, Levine said, met his mother-in-law several times and frequently asked after her. His outreach to her paid off, he said.

"She died at peace," he said. In the room where she died, Levine recalled, she kept three photos: a picture of her mother and father, a picture of her brother - all killed by the Nazis - and a picture of her with the pope.

"If they are looking for a miracle for John Paul, here is the miracle," he said. "She died at peace. John Paul healed her, he healed the soul of my mother-in-law."

While the concert to commemorate the Shoah touched many, it also left a mark on Levine, who called his Jewish faith "part of my soul, part of the construction of who I am."

Levine said he was invited to pray with the late pope in his private chapel at the Vatican after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. He said "it was just stunning" to see the pope's face when he was in prayer.

"He had a way of praying that is unbelievable in its intensity," the maestro recalled.

The difference in religion between the two friends - pope and maestro - never caused a problem, Levine said. "He (Pope John Paul ) always said we pray to the same God. This was more than just [that] he honored my Judaism, he honored my love of God," he said.

Levine said he and the pope not only shared a love of God, but also shared a love for music.

"John Paul was at heart an artist who understood the underpinning of great music." Levine said, adding that among the future saint's favorite classical music was Brahms' "Ave Maria" and Dvorak's "Mass in D."

Levine said John Paul also enjoyed Richard Wagner's opera, "Parsifal," and particularly its music for Good Friday from the third act. The pope, he said, "heard this as heart-rending, soul-opening music."

"John Paul understood the importance and value of music," the maestro said. "He knew music was a language, a way to form a bridge without words."

At the May 5 concert at Constitution Hall, Levine will conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke's from Carnegie Hall, the Krakow Philharmonic Choir, and the Choral Arts Society of Washington. He said it will also feature singers from Argentina and Italy whom Levine called "young soloists who are unknown."

Since the concert was first announced in January, there has been a change in the program. Originally, the line-up included a canzona written in the 16th century by Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli. That has been replaced with Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Also on the program are "Bogurodzica," a more than 1,000-year-old Polish Marian hymn; the "Sanctus and Agnus Dei" from The "Messa da Requiem" by Giuseppe Verdi; "Totus Tuus," written by Polish composer Henryk Górecki to celebrate John Paul II's 1987 pilgrimage to Poland; "Chichester Psalms" a choral work in the Hebrew language written by Leonard Bernstein; and "The Symphony No. 1 in C minor" by Johannes Brahms.

"I love the grouping (of orchestras and soloists) coming together for this," he said. "I love the broad structure of this."

But, before he conducts the concert, the maestro will be present as his friend is elevated to the honors of the altar. Levine said he is joining the estimated three million people expected to gather at the Vatican for the canonization because, "I was there for his funeral, and I will be there for this because this is a way the world can celebrate the gift to us that he was."

Levine said that nearly 10 years after the death of his friend, "it is astonishing that we are celebrating his canonization."

He said the late pope "will be remembered for his will for the world to be at peace. I never met a man with a larger heart. He breathed empathy. He breathed understanding. He saw all human beings as part of his soul."



(A number of limited tickets are available for the "Peace through Music 'In Our Age' " concert. Visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/peace-through-music-in-our-age-tickets-11253257797)