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Chronicling an unlikely friendship

In 1987, when Gilbert Levine was appointed conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic in Poland, he became the first American to become the full-time conductor of an eastern European orchestra. It was just the start of the adventure of a lifetime.

Within days, this "nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn" had met his first Catholic priest, who happened to be the Archbishop of Krakow.

A few weeks later, through a byzantine series of events, he was summoned for an audience with Pope John Paul II, who was interested in planning a concert together.

Talk about a baptism in fire. Levine is witty as he tells of his observations of Communist Poland, the intricacies of the Catholic Church, and his first glimpses of the Vatican.

He strikes a dreamlike tone as he tells of how he and Pope John Paul II became friends.

"He was the most remarkable person I ever met in my life," Levine writes.

The pope and Levine worked together for more than a decade. In 1994 Levine felt the urge to hold a concert commemorating the Shoah, and the pope was with him every step of the way. That event was followed by the 2004 Papal Concert of Reconciliation, and other concerts.

John Paul had a twinkle in his eye. In one of his best lines, he tells Levine: "You know the pope is coming. It's a very important concert."

Levine's book is so peaceful that I am surprised that it is proving popular. There is no dirt. Though he sticks with his own Jewish identity, the maestro loves the Catholic Church. He writes with respect about the figures he met, referring to them as "His Holiness," "His Eminence," and on down.

The gentle narrative is full of meetings ("His Excellency and I began to talk about what might conceivably be possible in the way of serious music for the Vigil Service")

We meet generous Cardinal Dziwicz, the Archbishop of Krakow, who becomes a close friend. And Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, a Jew who converted to Catholicism as a boy and who lost his mother in the Holocaust, and whose bittersweet story might be the most moving thing in the book.

Levine's feelings on music run deep. He loves such famously Catholic composers as Mozart and Bruckner. At the same time, it's sweet how, planning the music for the Catholic World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, he gets the OK to program American music, by Copland and Bernstein.

His projects with the pope were part of a bigger picture -- the strengthening of ties between Catholics and Jews.

"The Jewish people are the elder brothers of the Catholics in faith," Levine writes. "He understood the bond between us, that makes hatred, either from the Jewish side or the Catholic side, impermissible."

The drama played out in Levine's own family. He credits John Paul II with healing the soul of his mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor. The pope spoke privately with her at length, and she died at peace, he writes, a picture of the pope by her side.

Levine was knighted by Pope John Paul II, the first non-ecclesiastical musician since Mozart to receive such an honor. In 2005, he made history when Pope Benedict XVI made him the first Jewish recipient of the Silver Star of St. Gregory.

Might Levine ever join the church? His friend the pope never asked, but it's impossible not to wonder. Especially when Levine grows mystical telling how he had a heart attack and would have died, had he not been saved by an Arab Catholic doctor from Nazareth. "I knew now, as if I really needed any more proof, that there is indeed a God, and that he had shown his face to me that night."

My one regret is that Levine's story ends with the death of John Paul II, and the crowds calling for his sainthood.

Pope Benedict XVI, referring to himself as "one of the little popes," stands willingly in John Paul II's shadow. His humility, though, can mask his strength -- and his determination to work toward the same goals John Paul prized, of unity and peace.

I hope Levine can take heart. As he himself writes, "Clearly the pope wished our common mission to go on -- and on."

News Classical Music Critic Mary Kunz Goldman is working on a biography of pianist Leonard Pennario.

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The Pope's Maestro

By Sir Gilbert Levine

Wiley

408 pages, $27.95

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