Yesterday, conductor Sir Gilbert Levine GRD ’72 spoke with the News about his recent work, a PBS concert titled “Out of Many, One — A Musical Offering from Chicago — In the Spirit of John Paul” that will be televised at Yale on Thursday. Levine has conducted concerts in both Europe and the United States, and has also led multiple concerts for Pope John Paul II. In the last 25 years, he has been acclaimed for bringing classical music to a wider audience through PBS concert broadcasts. Levine will also speak at a Trumbull Master’s Tea on Thursday, prior to the screening.
Q: How have PBS concert broadcasts changed classical music production?
A: Television can bring out aspects of classical music performance that are hidden from the live concertgoer. You can get right into the faces of the orchestra members and be guided as a viewer in a way that highlights the structure of the music, and therefore the meaning of the work as the composer meant it to be heard.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with Pope John Paul II?
A: Working with His Holiness was like having a Renaissance royal patron, someone who came to understand the value of my art in realizing the goals of his pontificate. And he came to trust me to create concerts that would do just that, especially in his life-long quest to bring the believers of all the great faiths together in peace. The Pope’s support and his trust were essential elements in our creative relationship, which lasted more than 17 years.
Q: Why did you decide to include the footage of Chicago’s major cultural and religious landmarks in “Out of Many, One?”
A: It encompasses the musical, the artistic and the spiritual elements of Chicago. The [musical pieces] we performed are universal works, and yet their meaning is deepened by the associations our program makes with these diverse facets of this great American city. I was especially moved by the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Polish and Black immigrant experiences that make this quintessentially Middle-American [city] so multi-culturally rich. But John Paul plays a role here also. He was beloved by so many Chicagoans across so many divides. Again, it was his spirit that inspired us, using music and spirit to bring all its people together.
Q: The concert features a composition of Edward T. Cone, who you previously studied with. What makes his composition unique?
A: He taught me the link between analysis and performance in a way I have never encountered before. His work as a composer has a voice all its own. It is mid-century American — mellifluous yet original. That’s another terrific aspect of television: the ability to get the word out about someone very few people have heard of, but whose work deserves a broad audience.
Q: What does this concert mean to you?
A: I have never before had the opportunity to bring an American city musically and culturally alive on PBS like I have with Chicago. This was the first time that the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra had ever performed together. It was the first time that the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Polish Museum of America had ever collaborated. And for me it was special because I began my career as assistant to Sir Georg Solti, the great music director of the Chicago Symphony — my first job after getting my Yale degree.
Q: Could you describe your time in Eastern Europe during the Cold War?
A: When I first went to Poland in 1987 as the music director of the Krakow Philharmonic, my concertmaster told me that his grandchildren would surely live under communism. I was privileged to see the great courage of the Polish people in winning their own freedom. I also saw first-hand how Pope John Paul played an essential role in that dramatic transition. I have never valued a free society, as we have here in America, more than I did when I had to live under totalitarian tyranny in the Poland of 1987.
Q: How would you describe your graduate school experience at Yale?
A: The first experience I remember was conducting the Yale Philharmonia. Yale is also where I first met the great Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki — at a table in Naples Pizza [now Wall Street Pizza & Restaurant]! It was Penderecki who invited me to become the music director of the Krakow Philharmonic, from where I set off on my further journey into the world of Pope John Paul. But most of all, at Yale, I encountered excellence, both in performance and academics — a truly rare combination!
Q: What would your advice be for an aspiring conductor?
A: Be as complete a human being as you can. Learn as much as you can — not just about the scores you are conducting, but the wider works of the composer who wrote them. And about the society he or she lived or lives in. You are as an artist nothing more — and nothing less — than all that you are as a person. You will be the best composer’s advocate if you are your own best, fullest advocate as well. In short, there are no shortcuts. Take your time. Your Brahms, your Beethoven, your Kernis will all be better for all of it.