The Papal Concert of Reconciliation and the Pittsburgh Symphony

May 18, 2020 marks the 100th birthday of Pope John Paul II.

In 2004, WQED FM and TV accompanied the PSO to Rome when the orchestra, under the direction of Sir Gilbert Levine was the first American orchestra to perform at the Vatican before Pope John Paul II. The concert was given in honor of Pope John Paul's twenty-five year pontificate and celebrated his lifelong commitment to understanding between the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The major work on the program was Mahler's Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection" and the world premiere of  'Abraham,' a choral work by Pulitzer-Prize winning composer John Harbison.

The following is an exerpt from Sir Gilbert Levine's book The Pope's Maestro.


During the run-up to the televised concert in St. Peter’s, a letter had arrived from the Vatican bearing the signatures of both Cardinal Kasper and Archbishop Fitzgerald, officially approving the Papal Concert of Reconciliation to take place on January 17, 2004. That was a good thing, because we had proceeded with the preparations at breakneck speed for months. The Knights of Columbus had agreed to sponsor the concert. The Pittsburgh Symphony had agreed to perform, as had the London Philharmonic Choir, the Kraków Philharmonic Choir, members of the Pittsburgh Mendelssohn Choir, and true to Ambassador Jim Nicholson’s word, the Ankara Polyphonic Choir as well. John Harbison, one of America’s foremost composers, had even composed a new work in an extraordinarily short amount of time. Everything was all lined up and ready to go, and now we had our official Vatican invitation in hand.

On November 7, 2003, only hours after we received notice of the Bolletino, the eagerly awaited Vatican public announcement of the concert, we were permitted to hold a press conference in the ornate marble lobby of Heinz Hall, the storied home of the Pittsburgh Symphony. On hand to announce what had until then been a completely secret event were Richard Simmons, the PSO board chair; Carl Anderson, our Knights of Columbus knight in shining armor; and myself. Ambassador Jim Nicholson participated by telephone from Rome, and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who had to be elsewhere on official church business, sent his warm greetings and best wishes via video. Both the national and local press were on hand to tell the story to the world—and tell it they did.

The next day, and for the two months until our Vatican appearance, there was nothing as important in the Pittsburgh press as the Papal Concert of Reconciliation. It was front-page news. The television and radio stations, the mainstream press, and all the religious papers were filled with stories about how the concert had come to be. There were daily accounts of all our preparations, including the orchestra’s journey to Rome. The whole city, including its enormous Catholic community, was behind the Pittsburgh Symphony in a way no one could ever remember.

Our concert in Pittsburgh on January 14 was a sold-out send-off. In Heinz Hall we performed the entire Mahler Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” all eighty minutes of music, all five movements (only three of which, as determined by customary Papal Concert length, would be performed for the Pope in the Vatican). That complete performance was a special treat for our Mahler-loving Pittsburgh public.

However, we were not permitted to perform John Harbison’s sacred motet, “Abraham.” That was a Papal commission, which would have its world premiere at the Vatican in the presence of the Pope.

The Mahler Second with such a great Mahler orchestra as the Pittsburgh Symphony was deeply satisfying. And each member of that orchestra played in the tradition of all the musicians who had sat in their seats before them. They had passed their Mahler tradition down from generation to generation, mixing their experiences with those of their forebears.

Nothing pleased me so much as having a veteran member of the PSO bass section tell me that my Mahler reminded him of the music-making of William Steinberg, the orchestra’s famed Cologne-born music director, who had last led them in concert more than a quarter century before. To me, that was one of the highest compliments I could ever receive.

A Mahler sound is like no other. It takes virtuosity, yes, but coupled with a sense of the style and ethos of the time in which it was written: Central Europe just before the turn of the twentieth century. My time in Kraków was essential to me now. I could bring that southern Polish, Galician, Austro-Hungarian musical sensibility to bear on all the long-line melodic story that Mahler tells so wonderfully.

The Pittsburgh entourage that flew to Rome in January was huge. It seemed like half the city had decided to accompany its orchestra on its historic date at the Holy See. The press contingent alone was enormous but so was the cadre of ordinary citizens, board members, and others who clamored for their coveted special seats in the Vatican's Sala Nervi that January evening.

Michael Bielski later told me that the entire three days of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s stay in Rome passed as if “time had stood still.” They had clearly left their economic troubles behind, and welcomed the musical and spiritual experience that was to come, with open arms and hearts.

On the evening of the concert, as I waited with great anticipation with the assembled musicians on platform in the Sala Nervi, I wondered about His Holiness. How would he look? Would he walk in? Would he be supported by his cane? I had now not seen him in person in two years. What would time and travail have wrought on my beloved Pope John Paul?

The orchestra and the members of the immense choir, assembled from North America, Europe, and Asia especially for this command performance, seemed to grow tense in anticipation of His Holiness’ arrival. As I looked around one last time, I felt the audience too beginning to grow quiet in anticipation.

The Sala Nervi seemed like a sea of covered heads, each person according to his or her faith tradition. To my left I saw the face of a beautiful Muslim woman, her head covered in an elegant orange silk scarf. To her right sat a row of rabbis, wearing yarmulkes of various colors, but mostly black, and one with a rounded top hat, signaling his strict orthodox Ashkenazi beliefs.

In another section was what seemed to be a sea of Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals marked by their purple and orange skull-caps, next to a small section of black head-coverings, some trimmed in white, of the members of the non-Catholic Christian denominations represented at the concert. Behind them sat row upon row of nuns, in all manner of habit, some in black, some in white, some in the blue and white habits of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity of Calcutta. The Aula was a sea of color waiting for the holy man in white to arrive.

As I turned for the last time, I thought of all the wonderful conductors who had conducted for this Pope, legendary names like Carlo Maria Giulini and Riccardo Muti. Had they felt the same awe as I was feeling now? Had their orchestras, famed ensembles such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Orchestra of La Scala, also sat on the edge of their chairs, like the Pittsburgh Symphony was right now? And my mentor, Sir Georg Solti, had he felt the exquisite specialness I now was feeling when he led his renowned Chicago Symphony in their home city for the visiting Pope John Paul in 1979? Although this was my fourth Papal performance in this hall, I had lost none of the wonder of that first occasion in December 1988.

Finally, out of the corner of my eye, I caught the first glimpse of the Pope as he came through the same door through which the orchestra, chorus, and I had entered the Aula. He was flanked on his left by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rav Elio Toaff, dressed in an elegant black suit with a rich, silk charcoal-gray tie. Rav Toaff’s presence was oddly familiar, since he had been an honored guest at the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah back in 1994. On the Pope’s right, however, was Imam Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, the Imam of the Mosque of Rome. As I looked at the Imam, dressed in a black caftan, with a black ecclesiastical collar, his head topped with a low white fez, I wondered what was going through his mind as he looked out over this multicolored, interfaith scene.

His Holiness was in the middle, not walking now, but wheeled forward in what looked like a rolling gold-upholstered throne. He was dressed in his usual white cassock, with a golden pectoral cross around his neck and a white sash emblazoned with his Papal Seal. He wore a white zucchetto, or skullcap, on his head. That head covering always reminded me of the kippah we Jews all wear in synagogue on Yom Kippur.

Although clearly not able to sit up entirely straight, the Pope looked out at the applauding audience with a warm, deep smile, lifting his right arm in greeting, his open hand reaching out as if he wanted to shake every outstretched hand in the vast audience arrayed before him.

The applause went on, and on, and on. It was directed at all three holy men, to be sure, but it was most especially meant, I felt, for His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

At last, the uproarious welcome died down, and Archbishop Dziwisz, sitting just behind the Pope, signaled me to begin the evening’s music-making.

I bowed once more in the direction of the Pontiff, and he in turn gestured directly towards me. He was waving his hand, looking me upward in the eye, his face tilted downward by the curvature in his spine. To me, it looked as though he were reaching out towards me across the broad expanse between us. I felt as close to him in that moment as I ever had.

The Pittsburgh Symphony and all the choirs and soloists who had spontaneously stood at their first sight of His Holiness continued to stare in his direction, taking in the scene and the presence of His Holiness as if to store it in some precious place inside themselves, to be retrieved and savored again and again, after this experience was over. They seemed not to want to begin our evening’s work. Finally, with a gentle gesture from me, they all took their seats.

At long last, I raised my arms in preparation for the opening of John Harbison’s sacred motet, “Abraham.”

It is a rare privilege to conduct the premiere of any work, especially one by such an important figure as John Harbison. But to bring to life the never-before-heard sounds that John had only imagined in his mind’s ear, here in the Vatican, for this beloved Pope, was literally historic. The humbling dedication that Harbison wrote in his manuscript made the prospect all the more daunting:

"To His Holiness Pope John Paul II for his pontificate-long dedication to fostering reconciliation among the peoples of Abraham: Jews, Christians and Muslims, and with deep gratitude to Maestro Sir Gilbert Levine, for his 15-year-long creative collaboration with His Holiness, which led to the great honor of this commission."

I looked to see that everyone was ready, the Pittsburgh Symphony brass and the assembled choirs, and brought my arms down. Harbison’s opening staccato chords crackled his music to life. The double chorus and two brass choirs antiphonally declaimed their loud, unanimous, affirmative intent: “And! When!” Chorus One asserts. “And! When!” Chorus Two answers purposefully, in stepwise descent. Harbison unfolded the text and the music as if they were always meant to be one:

'And when Abraham was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abraham, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And thou shalt be the Father of many nations.'

This text from Genesis is so simple yet so profound, binding together Muslim, Christian, and Jew, all the progeny of the one Patriarch, in an unbreakable historic union of brothers and sisters. And John Harbison’s music perfectly captured that familial unity in all our rich religious diversity.

The performance of a new work always raises the question of whether the audience will respond favorably. John Harbison, sitting there in the Aula that evening, must have been wondering the same thing. As his work ended with quiet resolution, intoning over and over the name of the Patriarch Abraham, I heard the vast audience begin to applaud. Their reaction was warm and sustained, which was of course satisfying. But there really was only one reaction that I cared about.

I looked over at the face of His Holiness, who was applauding our performance, and caught his eye; it was as if he wanted to give me his review, right there on the spot. His smile told me all I needed to know. He had approved the text beforehand, and now his smile showed me he approved the music as well.

The other reaction came from the Pittsburgh Symphony itself. Harbison’s work is scored for double brass choir, thirteen players in all. So the eighty players who were sitting on the Vatican’s stage waiting their turn to play in the Mahler were also hearing the world premiere performance of this work, along with the 7,500 people in attendance and the millions watching on television throughout the world. The orchestra’s applause, demonstrated in the string players shaking their bows up and down in the air, and the woodwinds shuffling their feet, was a sign of approbation almost as important as that of the Pope.

After the birth of that new and wonderful work came the Mahler Symphony No. 2. We had performed it in Pittsburgh just three days before, but much had changed. For one thing, the choir was almost completely different. Only a handful of members of the marvelous Pittsburgh Mendelssohn Choir who had sung with us in Heinz Hall earlier in the week could accompany us to Rome, but the choirs of London, Kraków, and Ankara had all joined us just for the Papal Concert. In two marathon rehearsals, the three choirmasters and I had combined these three terrific, but very different, choirs, with their quite distinct choral traditions and Polish, English, and Turkish languages, into one cohesive, unified vocal ensemble, two hundred strong. If there were miracles in evidence that evening in this holy space, this was surely one of them.

The second challenge for the Pittsburgh orchestra and myself was the change of venue. Heinz Hall is an acoustical marvel, seating an ample 2,676 concertgoers. The Vatican's Sala Nervi seats 7,500 and is anything but acoustically friendly to any musical event, let alone a complex classical undertaking like Mahler’s Second Symphony. In addition, the Mahler score calls for an off-stage orchestra, which must be coordinated precisely with the huge orchestra on stage. In the Sala Nervi, that second orchestra was almost 150 feet away, and connected to me only by a closed-circuit television camera. What was a musical coordination feat in Heinz Hall became an extreme logistical challenge in the Aula Paolo VI.

More important than these logistics (which we thankfully could solve) was the question of whether the Pope would truly appreciate Mahler’s work in all its full-throated intensity. He had approved the work based on his familiarity with the original Mickiewicz poem “Dziady” and, frankly, based on his belief in me and our sixteen years of doing concerts together; but nothing like this had ever been performed for any pope in the history of the Vatican.

As we got under way, with the thunderous violin and viola tremolo and the pounding upward scales of the cellos and basses, I could only hope we would bring His Holiness with us on the extraordinary spiritual journey that is Mahler’s Second Symphony. At the second theme of the first movement, when the violins begin their aching ascent to our first musical glimpse of heaven, I looked out over the strings towards the Pope sitting on his throne. His eyes were alternately open and closed, but just when I thought he might be off somewhere else, he began to move his head from side to side, almost in rhythm with the inner pulse of the music itself. He seemed enthralled. He seemed to be entering deep into the spirit of the music, into the meaning hidden within the notes. I had never seen him so absorbed in any musical work in all the years that I had made music for him as he was in Mahler’s Second Symphony.

In the televised concert for PBS that was produced after the Vatican event, paintings especially commissioned by the Vatican for this occasion (and that were reproduced in the program for this Papal event) were shown. At the crucial section of the last movement, where the Last Judgment seems to be sounded and the call comes forth for all the souls of the faithful to meet their maker, the American television audience would see these paintings, one by one, in slow dissolve. The voices of the choir are made intentionally almost inaudible. Coming from an immense chorus of more than two hundred, the effect of so little volume of sound produced by so many voices is unearthly. As seen in our television broadcast, the paintings made a perfect complement to these heavenly choral tones.

In our live performance in the Vatican there were no such visual prompts. It is pure musical speech, entering the soul through the mind of the ear. And in this too His Holiness seemed to be right there with us, with Mahler, on the spiritual journey of the soul’s ascent into heaven. Whether his eyes were open or closed didn’t matter. I almost couldn’t keep my eyes off him, so distracting was the intensity of his  internalized involvement.

As we neared the end, there came the final crashing chords and full choral and orchestral peroration: “Arise, arise my soul. What you have wrought will carry you to God.” And it was over. The Pope joined the audience in standing up from his wheeled throne to applaud our performance, in what I hope and believe was his appreciation for the musical journey that we had just concluded with him.

When the applause finally died down, he sat and spoke words of peace that were at the very center of why we had initiated this concert in the first place:

"I have taken part with deep emotion in this evening’s concert dedicated to the theme of reconciliation among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I listened to the splendid musical performance that gave us all an opportunity for reflection and prayer. I extend my greetings to the distinguished conductor Maestro Gilbert Levine, to the members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and to the choirs of Ankara, Kraków, London, and Pittsburgh.

The history of relations among Jews, Christians, and Muslims is marked by both light and shadow, and it has unfortunately known some painful moments. This evening, we gathered here to give concrete expression to reconciliation, entrusting ourselves to the universal message of music.

The unanimous hope we express is that all peoples may be purified from the hatred and evil that threaten peace continuously, and so, be able to extend to one another hands that have never been stained by violence but are ready to offer help and comfort to those in need.

Yes, we must find within us the courage of Peace! We must implore on High the gift of Peace! And this peace will spread like a soothing balm if only we travel unceasingly on the road of reconciliation. Then the wilderness will become a garden in which justice will flourish and the effect of this justice will be peace. Omnia Vincit Amor!"

The Pope’s delivery was halting. He struggled mightily to end his breath. But there was no doubting the immense power of his words, or the powerful personal conviction with which they were delivered.

As His Holiness finished, Archbishop Dziwisz discreetly pointed in my direction for the chosen musical participants to approach His Holiness and receive his personal thanks. When the group, which consisted of Mark Huggins, the Pittsburgh Symphony co-concertmaster; our two wonderful German soloists, soprano Ruth Ziesak and mezzo-soprano Birgit Remmert; and myself, finally made our way across the stage to where the Pontiff was sitting, Archbishop Dziwisz indicated that I (rather than, as was usual, a member of the Church hierarchy) was to introduce my colleagues to the Pope. This was a public gesture of trust before all those present and all the millions who were watching. I was deeply honored.

After introducing my three wonderful colleagues, I looked for the first time closely into His Holiness’ eyes. It seemed to me that he had indeed been deeply moved. The music I had selected for him had made its intended impression. And the event that he had so courageously championed for many months had been well worth his intensive efforts.

He thanked me for all I had done, for the wonderful music we had made. And then he startled me with a remarkable request. “Maestro,” the Pope said, “would you please give us an encore? Would that be possible? I would be so grateful if you could do that this time. Your concert pleased me so very much.”

I was so stunned, I didn’t move. I held his hand, which had been in mine the whole time, and almost didn’t let go.

Finally, after what must have been far fewer seconds than it felt like, I answered, “Yes, Your Holiness, of course. We would be most pleased.”

I walked back to the podium thinking rapidly about what we could possibly perform as an encore after the conclusion of a huge-canvassed work like the Mahler Second. Just as I climbed up to take my place, it hit me. We would reprise the last few minutes of the symphony itself, reliving for ourselves and for all assembled the final moments of the musical journey we had just concluded.

I quickly flipped through the final movement of the score, and spoke in a stage whisper to the immense orchestra and choirs, who were waiting with quizzical looks on their faces. They had observed the conversation between the Pope and me, but they could not have had any idea whatsoever of his request.

“Number 48. Can we please start again at rehearsal number 48?” I fairly yelled across the wide and deep expanse of the Sala Nervi stage.

Every single one of the musicians looked stunned. But soon they understood. The strings, who were arrayed right in front of me, heard me loud and clear. They noted the place in the score, and in turn passed the spot where we would start back over their shoulders to their colleagues in the woodwinds and the brass, who in turn passed it back to the three choirs who were sitting in long rows behind them. How it got to all two-hundred-plus choristers I will never know. Maybe it was the second miracle of the night, after the choir’s unified performance after so few rehearsals.

In any case, we all found our place, plus or minus a few singers and instrumentalists who entered one by one, and by the time we reached the loud climax of that last movement of apotheosis once again, we had found one another, and Mahler. We had created an incredible musical end to a night of wonderful “at-one-ment” in the halls of the Vatican. The Pope’s encore had its intended effect.

After we finally left the stage (after the Pope and his entourage had made their own ceremonious exit), I bid members of the Pittsburgh Symphony good-bye as some came, one by one, into my backstage dressing room to thank me for bringing them to Rome. I told them it was I who was grateful to them (and to their choral colleagues and the soloists) for their remarkable music-making. The choirs left quickly, out of the Sala Nervi by the door on the opposite side of the hall, to board the waiting buses and begin their journeys home: to Kraków, London, Ankara, and Pittsburgh. I hoped I would see them all again, orchestra and choirs, but at that very moment I had no idea where or when.

John Harbison came backstage with his wife, Rose, and his publisher, Susan Feder. They wanted to know what the Pope had said about his work. It was clear to me, as I told them: “Couldn’t you tell, John? It seemed to me that he loved it.” John nodded in deep appreciation.

The new President of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Larry Tamburri, was in Rome as well, but he had only taken up his post at the New Year. He came backstage briefly before heading off into the night to a party hosted by the orchestra to celebrate its triumph.

The last to peek in my door was Michael Bielski, the orchestra’s manager, who had worked so diligently with me over many months. I thanked him profusely, yet again, for his devoted service to this concert. Through our many trials and tribulations we had become fast friends, and we remain so to this day.

The Pittsburgh Symphony flew back to the United States the next day, but throughout the following week I would meet members of the orchestra’s staff and their board all over Rome. Near the Pantheon, on the Via Veneto, in Saint Peter’s Square, even in the Villa Borghese up above the Spanish Steps. They were everywhere. They seemed reluctant to let their Papal experience go. Michael Bielski had been right: for the people of Pittsburgh who had come to Rome, “time had stood still.” They walked up to me on our family walks or while my family and I were dining in our favorite restaurants, curious and asking about how I had felt that night, and wanting, I suspect, to relive yet again the uplifting and magical feelings of that evening in the Aula.

For me, though, there was just one day off. The Monday after our Saturday concert I went right back to work. In my guise as on-air host of the upcoming PBS broadcast that would be created from this concert, I was to be filmed walking and talking in three of the most privileged places of religious importance in the whole of the Eternal City: The Sala Clementina in the Papal Apartments, the Great Synagogue of Rome, and the Great Mosque of Rome. All of this had been arranged, with the assent of His Holiness, through the good offices of Archbishop Dziwisz himself. The Pope knew the power of television to carry the message of our concert to millions across America, and he was seeing to it as best he could that all three faiths were equally represented in our presentation.

The Sala Clementina and the Great Synagogue were places I had known well, for more than fifteen years. The Great Mosque of Rome was something else again. Permission for a non-Muslim to enter this mosque is rare enough, but to be allowed to film there took the explicit permission of the same Islamic personage who had sat on the left side of His Holiness at the Concert of Reconciliation, the mosque’s Imam, Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa. His commitment to interfaith dialogue would now become even more self-evident.

When I arrived with my film crew in tow, the guardians of the mosque could not quite believe we had permission to enter the sanctuary. They called whomever they called, the Imam or his representative, I would suppose. The guards remonstrated on the telephone, in Arabic, with their consternation and meaning crystal clear. In the end, though, we were able to enter, just as the Imam had arranged.

I had never been inside a functioning mosque. But now I walked into a place of active worship where thousands upon thousands gathered each and every Friday for the Muslim day of prayer. The vast sanctuary was totally empty and elegantly bare. Only beautifully filigreed ceilings and lighted wall sconces suggested the path of a devout worshipper’s prayers to Allah.

In this holy space, I spoke, on air, of the two themes of the concert: our common ancestry in the Patriarch Abraham, and our shared belief in the resurrection of the soul, through different means, of course, but towards the same end, a reunion with our creator above.

I left the mosque with a renewed respect for the prayer life of my Muslim brothers and sisters. Allah is indeed great. All three of our faiths can at least agree on that.

The next day, Tuesday, January 20, 2004, my family and I had an audience with the Pope. Archbishop Dziwisz had said that His Holiness wished to see us before we left for New York. “Maestro, please do bring your family,” Archbishop Dziwisz said on the telephone. “ They are with you, I know. I saw them at the concert. Your boys, David and Gabriel, have grown so much since they were last here with us. The Holy Father will very much wish to visit with them, and with your wife, Vera, of course, as well.”

“Yes, we will all be there,” I answered, happy as always to bring my family to see the Pope.

“So, Tuesday, at 11 o’clock, Maestro. In the usual place. We will see you then.”

 © Sir Gilbert Levine