How do you acknowledge the canonization of two popes? With a secular, interfaith concert led by a Jewish conductor.
On Monday night at Constitution Hall, Gilbert Levine led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Krakow Philharmonic Chorus, and members of the Choral Arts society in a concert called “Peace through music in our age” that included music by Brahms, Gorecki, and Verdi: the only musical celebration of the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Levine, who in 1987 became the first American conductor to lead an Eastern European orchestra when he took over the Krakow Philharmonic, has had a singular career noted for a large number of performances with some of the world’s leading orchestras on PBS, which will also broadcast tonight’s performance later this year.
Levine also had a special relationship to Pope John Paul II, whom he met after taking over the orchestra in Krakow, in the Pope’s native land. This led to a long personal connection, a string of interfaith concerts at the Vatican and elsewhere, and a 2010 memoir entitled “The Pope’s Maestro.”
It also led to a striking and in ways anomalous career, anchored firmly on a number of concerts with a religious theme or message, something of a rarity in the increasingly secular world of “pure” classical music, in which even Masses and Passions are found as often in the concert hall as in churches (which may not have the means to put them on). Many of Levine’s notable performances Stateside, or on television, have been in Holocaust remembrances and Papal anniversaries. (The Washington Post last reviewed him in a 2005 concert the National Basilica hosted to commemorate the 40th anniversary of ‘Nostra Aetate,” a declaration Pope Paul made on interfaith relations.)
That classical music has spiritual content is something that many today tend both to assume and to downplay. At the same time, it’s the spiritual works that seem to gain the greatest traction in today’s society: from Gorecki’s Third Symphony to “Morimur,” which purported to find a musical tribute to Bach’s first wife within his famous violin chaconne, to the various Gregorian-chanting monks and nuns that regularly rise to the top of the Billboard charts. In New York, Lincoln Center has created a White Light festival that specifically seeks to focus on music’s spiritual elements, and that has found resonance with audiences.
The degree to which transcendence can be created on demand, packaged, and even televised is one of the great questions facing the field. Whether or not something is moving is, of course, partly in the eye and ear of the beholder. But the fact remains that Gilbert Levine has succeeded in forging a distinctive mainstream presence built on a purported ability to convey, or represent, precisely this transcendence; religion, for better or worse, has become his thing. And his presence assuredly lent luster and even legitimacy to Monday night’s celebration.