'The pope's maestro'


Gilbert Levine, a Brooklyn-born orchestra conductor, is known in some circles as "the pope's maestro."

After being appointed conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987, when Poland was still under Communist rule, Mr. Levine became acquainted with Pope John Paul II, who was archbishop of that city before being named pope in 1978. "He calls me 'Our maestro from Krakow,' " Mr. Levine said. Since then, Mr. Levine -- who is Jewish -- has been involved in several concerts with the pope, including last year's "Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust."

As a precursor to the next month's papal visit to Baltimore, Mr. Levine will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a Catholic-Jewish interfaith concert on Sept. 21 at the Basilica of .. the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Free tickets for "A Symphony of Psalms -- A Celebration of Our Common Heritage" will be available beginning tomorrow at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall box office.

Cardinal William H. Keeler and Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, will participate in reading English translations of the Psalms sung in the program.

"I see it as a significant tying in with Maestro Gilbert Levine's ministry of using music to help make spiritual bonds across interfaith boundaries. And he has done this wonderfully before," Cardinal Keeler said.

Mr. Levine's journey in forging a strong relationship with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church began in February 1987, when he was visiting Krakow to serve as a guest conductor of the orchestra. Unknown to him, renowned Polish conductor Krzysztof Penderecki had been working to set up Mr. Levine's appointment as conductor of the Krakow orchestra.

He was astonished when offered the job and said it took him nine months to decide whether he should take it. Finally, in

December, he took the job, the first Westerner to lead an Eastern European orchestra.

Moving to Poland was something of a cultural homecoming for Mr. Levine, whose grandparents emigrated from there to the United States in the 1890s.

But he found few Jewish people there. "The 80,000 Jews who lived there before the war became 200 by the time I got there," he said.

His ties with the Catholic Church began when he was summoned to meet with Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, John Paul II's successor in Krakow.

"One of the first things he said to me was, 'I felt pastorally committed to seeing you,' " Mr. Levine said. "I feel that before the war, this interview we're having would have been with the chief rabbi of Krakow."

That encounter led to his first meeting with Pope John Paul, in February 1988 in Rome, which Mr. Levine said changed his life.

"The pope and I spoke, in ways that I just couldn't have imagined, in personal terms of what my appointment as principal conductor meant to him," he said. "I felt a deep emotional bond and concern on his part. . . . He clearly wanted to put me under his wing. . . . Out of that grew this relationship."

John Paul asked Mr. Levine to conduct a concert commemorating his 10th anniversary as pope. In the spring of 1991, Mr. Levine conducted the Holocaust commemoration concert. Mr. Levine also conducted a vigil service during the pope's visit to Denver for World Youth Day in August 1993.

The concert at the Basilica is being sponsored by the Jewish Chautauqua Society, a group dedicated to interfaith understanding through education, with a grant from the Baltimore-based Peggy and Yale Gordon Charitable Trust. The program will feature renditions of the Psalms by Schubert, Bernstein, Verdi, Stravinsky and Brahms. More than 200 musicians will participate, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Men and Boys Choir of Old St. Paul's Church and the Choir of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

One of the driving forces behind the Basilica concert is Loraine P. Bernstein, assistant director of the Gordon Trust, who had followed Mr. Levine's career for years and knew he shared her interest in interfaith activities.

"I'm of Polish descent. I speak the language. I wasn't born Jewish, but my husband is Jewish, and so I'm interested in

Jewish-Polish relationships, beyond my own," she said.

She knew she would be in New York in December for a business trip, she said, "so I called him up out of the blue . . . and asked to meet him at breakfast." She proposed the concert, and Mr. Levine told her he had been speaking with Cardinal Keeler, whom he had met during the papal visit to Denver, about the same thing.

Baltimore's strong Jewish community and its status as the first Catholic diocese in the United States makes it an appropriate place for such an interfaith concert, Mr. Levine said.

"There's a rightness in having this concert at this time in the city of Baltimore," Mr. Levine said. "There's a rightness to it that makes it have the capacity to be a great occasion in an important cause and at an important time in our national dialogue about tolerance."


What: "A Symphony of Psalms -- A Celebration of Our Common Heritage" -- an ecumenical concert in honor of the visit to Baltimore of Pope John Paul II.

Who: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Gilbert Levine, with the Men and Boys Choir of Old St. Paul's Church, the Choir of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and a soloist from the Boys Choir of Harlem.

When: Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cathedral and Mulberry streets.

Tickets: Available beginning tomorrow at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall ticket office. Limit of two tickets per person. The office is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon until 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

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