Scott Korb

Of all people, longtime America readers may be familiar with, if not the full story, then at least the enduring title of the American-Jewish conductor Sir Gibert Levine’s memoir of his “deep spiritual friendship” with Pope John Paul II. In November 1994, just months after Levine’s celebrated collaboration with John Paul on the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah and in advance of his Christmastime investiture as a Pontifical Knight Commander, this magazine ran a cover story, with Levine in his “finest summer whites,” under the headline “The Pope’s Maestro.” The nickname stuck and has been used widely ever since—from inside the Vatican itself to a profile on “60 Minutes” in 2001 and a documentary on Polish television in 2009 called “Papieski Maestro.” Even CNN’s Larry King has used the phrase. Now it is Levine’s turn. And with The Pope’s Maestro, a book as full of gratitude as anything else, the focus shifts, and what we get is a thoughtful and, indeed, touching portrait of the maestro’s pope.

Gilbert Levine met Pope John Paul II in February 1988 during his tenure as musical director and principal conductor, or “Chief,” of the Kraków Phil-harmonic, a period that for Levine was artistically liberating but also, owing to the constant police surveillance in Communist Poland, personally oppressive. Summoned to Rome after a warm and courtly welcome to Kraków by then-Archbishop Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, Levine is received by the pope in a private audience. In a way, that will become familiar as his relationship with the Vatican deepens. As the men part ways Levine is told of a concert he is to conduct—one of the many, many more that will follow in his service to Rome. He recalls: “I was dumbfounded. ‘What concert?’ I tried to say to the closing door.”

This is Levine’s Vatican. A dumbfounding series of endlessly opening and endlessly closing doors, a series of disappearing acts around the world, of introductions and permissions, “rules and customs, and lines of authority,” “careful prerogatives” within a “small village” that somehow still “extends its borders all the way to the Holy Land.”

At the center—or rather, the top—of all this, of course, is the maestro’s pope. Yet despite the exquisite hierarchy the pope presides over, as Levine puts it, John Paul remains always “human sized,” his hand rough as it rests on the maestro’s to calm him throughout their entire first meeting, his “cheek…soft, and warm, and oh so human,” in the moment near the end of John Paul’s life when Levine bids him farewell with a goodbye kiss. The pope even tells jokes.

But above all, there is a sacred seriousness to Levine’s book. From the start John Paul is inquisitive, solicitous and attentive, particularly when it comes to matters of Judaism and the Holocaust, including stories of Levine’s mother-in-law Margit’s 18 months in Birkenau. During that first meeting, John Paul’s startling youthfulness, even at 67, disappears from his face and is replaced by a pained look over “centuries of misunderstanding and of hate” between Christians and Jews.

The Pope’s Maestro is Levine’s account of their work together—always through music, concert after concert after concert—to overcome those misunderstandings and move toward greater, deeper reconciliation and unity. There is the Denver World Youth Day concert in 1993, the commemoration of the Shoah in 1994, two papal concerts to celebrate the 2000 Jubilee Year, and the Papal Concert of Reconciliation in January 2004, which brought together performers from the three Abrahamic traditions around their shared belief in resurrection. (The pope’s outreach to Islam remained a bit of “‘unfinished business’ for His Holiness” and for the world after his death, Levine notes, which sadly “remains so to this day.”)

The language at Levine’s disposal is all religious, and his hope rests on what he calls “at-one-ment,” which when shared with the pope means something more than either Jewish atonement or Christian reconciliation. It is about sharing a common humanity over all distances, all traditions and all creeds. It is about sharing one God, a lesson Levine learns one morning while praying with John Paul, which leaves him in a daze. Later that day Dziwisz asks, “Maestro, don’t you know? We both pray to the same God.” (The sentiment takes on even greater significance when Levine, after leaving the Great Mosque of Rome for the first time, is able to say, “Allah is indeed great.” This moment, of course, recasts and reimagines the Arabic phrase Allahu Akbar, which appears in his memories—and so many of ours—from 9/11.

For Levine, the credit for whatever at-one-ment he has achieved in his life, and what he aims to achieve in this book, seems mainly due to John Paul, who for all his humanity must also be seen as a kind of supernatural force. Throughout his life and often with few words—and even those were halting near the end—the maestro’s pope deepened friendships, opened doors, forged understanding and healed wounds.

Near the end of The Pope’s Maestro, Levine reflects on his life making music: “Conductors don’t often get a chance to express themselves in words. That’s mostly for the good.” Any of us who care to know this maestro’s pope, however, should be glad for the chance Levine took and, indeed, for that word “mostly.”

Listen to an interview with Sir Gilbert Levine.

Scott Korb is co-author of The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God (2007) and, most recently, Life in Year One.