Today, Ellyn von Huben reviews The Pope's Maestro, an account of the deep friendship of Blessed John Paul II and Jewish musician, Sir Gilbert Levine, a friendship forged by a shared love of music.
We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 28:5-6)
Some people say that there are no such things as coincidences. And "coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous," is an aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein. Far be it from me to quibble with Einstein. But I would think that it is not so much God’s anonymity as our lack of attentiveness. God is always there. (I won’t bore you with the odd series of so-called coincidental events - fascinating as I may find them to be - that have led to me here, to the opportunity to be a contributor to the Word on Fire blog.)
There is a story of ‘coincidence’ and the work of the Holy Spirit that is much more fascinating. The Pope’s Maestro by Sir Gilbert Levine is the story of a Jewish musician from New York who, by a series of what could appear to be stunning coincidences, came to not only conduct concerts for Pope John Paul II for over 15 years, but to forge a relationship of mutual respect and love.
I approached this book warily, since my musical knowledge extends scarcely past an ability to read a handful of notes and plunk out Christmas carols with one finger on a piano of which I am at a loss to discern whether or not it is in tune. If the keys don’t stick, it’s all good to me. So I thought I would lose interest within the first couple of pages, expecting Sir Gilbert to launch into a ponderous discussion of time signatures, accidentals and hemidemisemiquavers. What I found instead was (as noted on the book jacket) “the compelling musical and spiritual journey of two men of different faiths who found in music the power to foster peace and unity in a profoundly divided world.” This is a story that can reach the hearts of the most profoundly tone-deaf.
Gilbert Levine, born in New York City, had already had quite the varied and stellar career when he became the conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987. It was in this position that he came to the attention of Pope John Paul II. Levine was invited to the Vatican to meet the Pope, and what he anticipated as a mere formal courtesy was just the beginning of a mutually respectful working relationship and lasting friendship.
In the course of this first meeting, having talked with the Holy Father about a variety of subjects - from music to Krakow to the suffering of Levine’s mother-in-law as her entire family was killed at Auschwitz - Levine found himself blurting out, “I believe, Your Holiness, that it is you who can achieve the coming together of our two peoples after so many centuries of misunderstanding and of hate. I believe you were sent by God to do just that.” He was instantly shocked by the words he had just said. “If the Pope was thinking what I was thinking he was thinking, I was in big trouble.” 
But instead of trouble, a bemused Levine was left with the Pope’s cryptic, “Maestro, I will see you at your concert,” a concert that this conductor as yet knew nothing about. And that is just the start of a story of music, Judaism, Catholicism, history, political intrigue and more as told by someone who was no mere observer.
From the concert celebrating the 10th Anniversary of John Paul II’s pontificate to the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust and beyond, The Pope’s Maestro is much more than a book about music. Levine’s story is a musical mosaic of coincidences and moments of grace in the life of the author, his family and the world. Rich in personal anecdotes, this book gives us a splendid profile of the “great soul”  of Sir Gilbert Levine (knighted by Pope John Paul II and receiving subsequent honors from Pope Benedict XVI). Those of us whose only knowledge of beautiful music is that “we know it when we hear it” should not shy away from this book lest we also miss a fascinating look into the vast and beautiful soul of our Blessed John Paul II.
 Sir Gilbert Levine, The Pope’s Maestro (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2010) p.54-56
Ellyn von Huben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire Blog. She also moderates her own blog, Oblique House.