'Pope's maestro' to conduct Washington concert to mark canonizations

This story appears in the Papal canonizations feature series. View the full series.

Richard Szczepanowski

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American conductor Sir Gilbert Levine will conduct an orchestra and two choirs in a May 5 concert in Washington to celebrate the canonizations of two popes, Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II.

Levine is often called "the pope's maestro" because of his nearly two-decade friendship with Blessed John Paul.

Titled "Peace through Music 'In Our Age,' " the concert at Constitution Hall will be presented on PBS and televised throughout the world. It will be offered a week after Pope Francis canonizes the former popes during an April 27 Mass at the Vatican.

"This will be a celebration of the two popes," Levine said at a news conference Thursday in Washington to announce the concert. "John Paul came to understand the power of music as a language to express in a powerful way his message."

The concert is a joint effort of the archdiocese of Washington, the Embassy of Poland and Georgetown University. The news conference was held in the great hall of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.

The archdiocese "is pleased to collaborate in this extraordinary effort to celebrate these two extraordinary men," Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said at the news conference. "So much of the world feels a personal bond with each or both of these popes."

The concert's title comes from the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, or "In Our Age." It is the declaration on the church's relations with other religions.

"John XXIII and John Paul II had an extraordinary global impact," Wuerl said. "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."

During the May 5 concert, which will be free, Levine will conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke's from Carnegie Hall, the 85-voice Krakow Philharmonic Choir, and the 180-voice Choral Arts Society of Washington.

Levine called the concert's program "very important" because it features works that "form a musical celebration of these two popes."

The concert includes:

  • A canzona written in the 16th century by Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli; Blessed John was patriarch of Venice before he was elected pope.
  • "Totus Tuus," written in 1987 by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki to celebrate Blessed John Paul's pilgrimage to Poland that year.
  • "Chichester Psalms," a choral work in the Hebrew language written by Leonard Bernstein. Levine said that with the work's stirring plea that "may all nations come together and be as one, this is a strong statement about John XXIII and John Paul II."

"John Paul used to say, 'Music comes where words fail,' " Levine added. "Music was the spirit and heart of my relationship with John Paul."

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

As pope, he 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, Blessed John Paul commissioned Levine to conduct the now-historic "Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah."

"Despite the opposition and obstacles, John Paul was a lion in defense of this concert," Levine said of the Holocaust commemoration. "He knew music could be the bearer of his message of healing. He was a man of such vision and courage."

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 was a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp.

More than 200 survivors of the Nazi death camps attended the 1994 concert at the Vatican. He said through that 1994 concert, Holocaust survivors could say, "Somebody heard us and it was the pope in Rome, somebody spoke out for us and it was the pope in Rome."

Over the years of Blessed John Paul's pontificate, Levine conducted several 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.

In 1994, Blessed John Paul named Levine a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great. That honor was the highest papal knighthood given to a musician since Mozart. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI presented Levine with the Silver Star of the Order of St. Gregory, the highest papal honor ever given to a Jew.

Wuerl said the May 5 concert would "celebrate the great gifts of both these popes and their spirit of reconciliation and their calling all of us to recognize the basic humanity that we all share."

Ryszard Schnepf, ambassador of Poland, said his embassy was eager to help facilitate the upcoming concert because "John Paul's message of independence and freedom is a beautiful message for the future. That it is coming from Washington to the people of the whole world is a great thing."

At the news conference, Paul Tagliabue, chair of Georgetown University's board of directors and former commissioner of the National Football League, also praised the legacy of the two popes and their work for peace and mutual understanding among people of different faiths.

"The world needs to hear their message," he said.

[Richard Szczepanowski is a staff writer at the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington archdiocese.]

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