Renowned conductor Sir Gilbert Levine, known as “The Pope’s Maestro” for his close connection to John Paul II, graduated from the Juilliard School of Music, received an A.B. from Princeton and completed his M.A. here at Yale. Since then, he has strived to foster close connections between composer and conductor, conductor and orchestra, and orchestra and audience. His teachers include the notable Milton Babbitt and Nadia Boulanger, and his dynamic musical career has carried him to international stages from Italy to Krakow. In 1994, Pope John Paul II honored Levine’s efforts to promote common chords of understanding between Judaism and the Catholic Church by deeming him a “Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great.” Inspired by the great cultural figurehead Leonard Bernstein from a young age, Sir Gilbert has also conducted music for millions through public television. February 22 promises to be another winning spectacle as he channels composers Richard Danielpour and Gustav Mahler at the helm of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. The program includes narration from President Peter Salovey, soloists from the Yale Camerata and musicians from the Yale School of Music and Yale Glee Club. Earlier this week, Sir Gilbert serenaded WEEKEND with prescient thoughts on music, the art of conducting and the perks of channeling Mahler.
Q. How did you come to conduct the upcoming performance?
A. My son, Gabriel Levine ’14, is the principal bassoonist in the YSO. Toshi [YSO Musical Director Toshiyuki Shimada] asked me whether I would like to conduct the YSO and I said, “With my son in it? Of course.”
Q. So New Haven is not uncharted territory?
A. I received my M.A. here at Yale and I’ve been a fellow of Trumbull for many years and have done a number of Master’s Teas. So I’ve really enjoyed my university connection; however, this is the best — getting to conduct my son in the YSO. The program is just an astonishing Yale program because we’re doing a work by Richard Danielpour called “Washington Speaks” on, I believe, Washington’s birthday — which includes the words of Washington on religious tolerance. There is also a fantastic Yale connection to those words because Ezra Stiles, the third president of Yale, was the pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport and was present at the inauguration in 1763 of the Touro Synagogue, which was the synagogue to which Washington wrote the letter. So it’s like coming full circle.
So, this issue of religious liberty at Yale goes back to its founding and certainly to Ezra Stiles. Then you have this incredible arc to Peter Salovey, who comes from a great rabbinic family. The Soloveitchik rabbis are a legendary family of rabbis from White Russia and from Brest-Litovsk. To have as the President of Yale the son of a great rabbinic family and stretching back that tradition to Ezra Stiles, who befriended a rabbi in Newport, and to have Washington write that letter — there’s just a remarkable confluence there.
Then the Mahler Second Symphony is this gargantuan canvas, and because it’s so large and rich, we have the members of the YSO and we have students at the YSM who are filling out the sections, particularly the brass of the YSO. Then you have the Yale Glee Club and the Yale Camerata (an undergraduate and graduate ensemble) and you have students and a faculty members singing. I love that. That’s just a great Yale event. I’m really looking forward to that aspect of it.
Q. It seems the music is unifying all of these different parties.
A. That’s what it’s about and that’s what a lot of my life has been about is music as a unifying force. I did the Mahler Second Symphony at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome and the Imam of the Mosque of Rome at the concert called the Papal Concert of Reconciliation with the Pittsburgh Symphony and choruses from Krakow, London, Turkey and Pittsburgh and two German soloists. Again, bringing people together is what music does. So, this is the Yale cast. President Salovey has just been fantastic.
Q. Do you think these religious themes are particularly relevant today?
A. They’re more relevant today than maybe at any time in history if you look at the killing that’s going on around the world in the name of religion. We are a Holocaust family so we lost forty members of our family from racial hatred of the most extreme kind. If you look at what’s going on now in Syria among Muslims — it’s a deep human tragedy that people kill in the name of God. We can use whatever means (and I use music because it’s my art) to bring people together and to remind people of what we have in common: our human characteristics. It’s something which obviously formed the core of my relationship with Pope John Paul II, he being Polish-Catholic, I being of Polish-Jewish heritage (or Jewish with Polish heritage). Finding a bridge, finding a way to use music as a language of at-one-ment is extraordinary. When you have your art serve that purpose with one of the great spiritual leaders of all time, now to be made a saint on April 27, it’s an honor and a responsibility and a privilege as an artist.
Q. Was there a pivotal moment in your early years when you realized music was your art?
A. Most people are forced by their parents to practice. I may have been guilty about doing that to our sons a little bit but I was never forced. My family was a very unmusical family. We had a little spinet piano so my mother could play folk songs. I, from a very early age, couldn’t be dragged away from the piano. I’m sure that the sounds I was making were horrendous because I had no training and I was just pounding but there was something mystical about those sounds. They struck a chord with me that was really profound. I remember feeling that way from the earliest possible age, that music had that capacity for me to reach a different level of understanding with the world. It brought me away from the world in a way that was remarkable but also tuned me into the world in a way that was as remarkable. Later, I began studying seriously. It became clear music could be a profession, but at first it was a state of being. I learned I was more proficient at music than I was at language and I was more proficient at expressing myself through music.
When I encountered symphony orchestras, I guess at eleven or twelve, I said, “My God, somebody can make something sound like that?” It was sure no spinet piano. It was something quite remarkable. The person who did that was Leonard Bernstein. I met him once very late in his life at Tanglewood, but he was a television personality. There were no American conductors before him, so he was the first and I said, “Oh wow, I can actually do that!” He was my inspiration. My mother even wrote a letter to his assistant saying, “What do I do with this crazy kid?” He said to find somebody of impeccable credentials and have him give your son a brutally honest answer as to whether he has talent. So my mother trundled me off without telling me what was going on to audition for this guy and he called her just shortly after my lesson and said, “It’s okay. He’s got the goods.”
Q. What do you see as the ideal role of the conductor?
A. My job is first of all to have an idea, to understand a score sufficiently. You are the composer’s representative. And that’s not so simple because it takes a tremendous amount of abnegation of ego to put yourself in the service of composer. It takes endless hours of just trying to understand the creative impetus, the creative core of a piece of music and then to translate that in your own mind. My method of studying, for instance, is that I sit at a table with an open score — no recording, no nothing. I allow the notes to speak with me. I have to come to an understanding of what Brahms or Beethoven or Mahler is trying to say. My conductor’s brain comes in as far as translating that conception to the orchestra. That’s the talent. You have to take the composer’s view as you know it and then make that sum greater than the parts.
Q. What was your creative process in preparation for conducting Mahler?
A. When I went back to study Mahler’s Second again for this performance, I found new things that made sense to me. It’s like reading a Shakespeare play. You can read it in every decade of your life and you will understand it differently. Every time I do the Mahler Second Symphony, I learn new things that Mahler or Mahler’s culture imbued and imprinted into that symphony. There are many, many right ways of doing the Mahler Second. There’s only one right way for me right now this week.
Q. Some of the audience members in Woolsey this Saturday, I imagine, will be Mahler devotees.
A. But many not. And that’s very important because I conduct for everyone in the hall. If there are Mahler devotees, they’ll compare my performance with the 25 other performances they’ve heard. If they’re hearing it for the first time, that’s even better. You’re introducing them to the colossal masterwork. I am acutely aware that there will be people in the audience who will be very, very well versed and people who really will have nothing of an experience. Or there will be people who are deeply religious and come at it from that point of view and be uplifted by it spiritually. That’s a fascinating thing to see: that spiritual uplift that happens regardless of what you think you believe. I am about music and spirit, and bringing music and spirit together, because I think they are one and the same when they are done properly.
Q. So that they transcend …
A. Yes. When I was here getting a Master’s, Leopold Stokowski, a famous British conductor of Polish heritage, came and it was my job to prepare the Yale Philharmonia for his arrival. I prepared them on the stage of Woolsey; it was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This limousine pulled up to the stage door of Woolsey and Stokowski got out, aided by an assistant, and I don’t think he knew where he was. He was maybe ninety years old. But when he got on stage, he connected with the audience in an electric way. His spirit and his brain were turned on. He sat down and transformed the Philharmonia and made them come alive with his understanding. He was a genius conductor. That’s what music does — to those who make it and to the orchestra itself.
Q. And to the audience as well?
A. Yes! And that’s our goal, to be the medium for the composer to reach the audience with his or her music.
Q. And for people who are less familiar with Mahler or classical music?
A. They will be blown out of their chairs! And that is the truth. This piece will literally blow them away! The Mahler is a piece which brings people out of their chairs. It is overwhelming and uplifting in the way the Beethoven Ninth is. There are very few pieces where you walk away saying, “Wow! That was an unbelievable experience!” It is a great experience for somebody who’s never been to a concert. I think the Salovey and “Washington Speaks” element is wonderful as a Yale moment. Woolsey Hall will rock! I think every single person on campus and in the town will find it uplifting. I didn’t do that. Mahler did.
Correction, Feb. 21: a previous version of this article misspelled the name of Leopold Stokowski.