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Pittsburgh Symphony to perform for pope

Orchestra has Jan. 17 date at Vatican

Saturday, November 08, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz and Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The Knights of Columbus have agreed to provide more than $500,000 to fund a historic visit to the Vatican by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to perform for Pope John Paul II.

During a news conference yesterday at Heinz Hall, Richard Simmons, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's chairman of the board, watches a tape by Bishop Donald Wuerl about the Silver Jubilee Concert to be performed in January for Pope John Paul II. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The Jan. 17 concert, celebrating the 25th year of John Paul's papacy and his lifelong devotion to ecumenical outreach to Muslims, Jews and Christians, will mark the first time an American orchestra has played at the Vatican for a pope.

"This could be a remarkable opportunity for America to show its orchestral culture and for Pittsburgh to show the greatness of its orchestra," said Gilbert Levine, who conceived of the concert and will conduct the PSO.

Levine, a New York native, has directed top European orchestras at the Vatican for the past 15 years. Levine said Pittsburgh was his first choice among U.S. ensembles because "it is a great orchestra."

The pope will hear the concert in the 7,500-seat hall where he greets his Wednesday audiences. The program will feature Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," and the world premiere of a choral work by Pulitzer-Prize winning composer John Harbison. Harbison was a composer in residence at the PSO in the 1980s.

The concert's theme, Levine said, is reconciliation among believers in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which, he added, has been a goal of Pope John Paul II's papacy.

"Today's world context begs for reconciliation," said James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, who joined a briefing at the concert hall via telephone.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said it was significant that the orchestra celebrating the pope's ecumenical work comes from Pittsburgh.

"There is a long history of interfaith dialogue in Pittsburgh," Lengwin said.

Lengwin cited the Christian Leaders Fellowship, a group that meets once a month in homes, and the Interfaith Religious Leadership Forum, a local organization of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders who meet four times a year.

Muslims, Jews and Christians, Lengwin said, "all revere Abraham as one of the pillars of our faith."

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson of the Knights of Columbus said the charity will pay for the trip, which he estimated will cost more than $500,000.

The groundwork for the symphony's trip to the Vatican was laid earlier this year and work began in earnest during the early summer.

Levine, who met the pope 15 years ago while serving as music director of the Cracow Philharmonic, worked with the pontiff, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and the PSO this summer.

The concert needed a benefactor because the PSO, beset by financial difficulties, could not fund a trip for more than 100 musicians, soloists, conductor and a choir.

"We needed an angel, even a knight," said Richard P. Simmons, PSO board chairman.

The Knights of Columbus, an international Catholic service organization with 1.7 million members, was founded in 1882 in New Haven, Conn., by the Rev. Michael McGivney, a Roman Catholic priest.

Anderson said this is the first time the fraternal group has financed a trip by a symphony orchestra.

"You could immediately see the great benefit of doing this," Anderson said, adding that the pope has commented on the ability of Americans, who profess many different faiths, to live harmoniously.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Knights of Columbus established a $1 million fund for 419 families of rescue workers who died that day, Anderson said. The charity began distributing $3,000 checks to those families on Sept. 14, 2001. The charity recently sent 2,000 wheelchairs to Afghanistan for victims of land mines.

Pittsburgh music lovers will hear the concert, too, because Levine will conduct the program here on Jan. 13. The Diocese of Pittsburgh will sponsor that concert.

Tickets for that performance go on sale Monday at the PSO Web site,, or by phone at 412-392-4900.

Cultural arts writer Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648. Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at 412-263-1750.

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