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Celebrating Freedom With Music

Gilbert Levine witnessed Poland's swing from Stalinism to democracy since 1987. INTERVIEW: AMERICAN DIRECTOR OF KRAK'OW SYMPHONY

`I WANT to support the Polish people in the incredible struggle they're going through,'' Maestro Gilbert Levine said in a Monitor interview on his recent visit to Denver. In town to conduct the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in a tribute to Poland, Mr. Levine discussed his tenure as the only American musician to head a major Eastern European Orchestra. Appointed director of the Krak'ow Philharmonic in 1987, Mr. Levine has seen Poland abruptly abandon a repressive political system and try to establish a democratic society. ``They have worked very, very hard to achieve it. It wasn't given to them. I feel celebrating that process [in music] is a wonderful way to support that effort.''

Levine's appointment to the Krak'ow Philharmonic has been what he calls an amazing experience: ``When I first went to Poland in February of 1987, the country was still suffering from Stalinism. ... They had nothing, and worst of all they had very little hope. Their flirtation with Solidarity had been brutally suppressed through martial law. They were really in a state of national depression, I guess you could call it, not really believing they would ever see the light of day.''

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Over the next 18 months the changes came quickly, startling everyone. Levine saw the beginnings of the new order in the spring of 1988 and then quite radical changes from the fall of '88 to the fall of '89. He was witness to amazing events and even sat in on the first public Solidarity meetings. He says he felt the nation was really giving birth to freedom again. It was a difficult process. ``And it was something which they did themselves, forging it out of their own reality. It's very important to understand that each of the countries of Eastern Europe is different. Each country will achieve a different notion of democracy and a different notion of freedom.''

A crazy idea

When offered the position, Levine thought long and hard. ``You don't go to Poland for the money,'' he remarked. He had gone there to conduct one concert, and there were only 80 people in the audience. But they must have been the right 80 people because, after the concert, he was offered the post of music director. At first he didn't take the offer seriously. It seemed like a crazy idea. It had never been done before - bringing an American to an Eastern European orchestra. Still, he was promised that ``the time was right'' for this kind of an appointment.

After the orchestra decided on Levine, the nomination had to be approved at the highest levels because it was such a public position and such a break with tradition. What would the Russians think? Levine says that Gorbachev and glasnost (openness) made ``the time right'' and his placement possible.

Levine has found Polish culture exciting and rich. His own roots are Polish, so the appointment at Krak'ow (a city of some 740,000 in southern Poland) has meant a great deal to him on various levels. He accepted the appointment for many reasons, not the least of which was his own desire to rediscover his Polish-Jewish heritage.

``My family lived in Poland for hundreds of years,'' he says. ``My grandparents left Poland in 1895 to come to America to find their fortune, and I feel strongly that my going back is not only to discover my roots but to help make connections between Poland and America. Many, many people from Eastern Europe have helped make our country great. My background is Jewish, and I'm very, very proud of that. Judaism was a major force for a thousand years in Poland. There were animosities, of course, but there was also great success in building both cultures.''

Levine had some misgivings about taking his current position. ``My mother-in-law was a prisoner at Auschwitz. She survived through a series of courageous acts, one by a Pole who saved her life at the risk to her own. My mother-in-law was interned in a ghetto right outside of Krak'ow. So for her, my going to Krak'ow was unimaginable at first but, in a certain sense, a redemption. Before I left I told her I would not take the position if she didn't want me to. But she said, `No, you must go. My life was saved by a Pole. This culture was our culture. Nazis killed Jews, and it's an important demonstration that we survived.'''

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Jewish culture had flourished in Krak'ow. One of three centers of Jewish learning, the city nurtured a great Talmudic tradition. A great number of Jews who spoke Polish assimilated themselves to the national culture and lived as Poles and as Jews.

Despite a resurgence of open anti-Semitism throughout Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe (``as if they'd frozen the atmosphere of the 1930s and then thawed it''), Levine finds hope in current Polish clerical attitudes toward anti-Semitism - that it is un-Christian. He recently conducted a concert of ``Remembrance and Reconciliation'' meant to promote the reconciliation between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews. Most of his experiences have been very positive. His engagement has been eagerly received by the general public and his Jewish heritage venerated in the local press.

``I took the job because it was a great symphony orchestra in a great city. I'd heard them on tour at Carnegie Hall - a terrific orchestra. Krak'ow is an architectural jewel because it was not destroyed by the Gestapo, who used it as a headquarters. A fascinating city with deep cultural life, it feels itself to be the heart and soul artistically of Poland. It's an electric atmosphere artistically - very much like Vienna. It has a highly sophisticated public, a public deeply attached to Schubert and to Brahms and to Beethoven - all the composers I love to conduct.''

Levine has found that Krak'ow audiences are starved for culture and they love their orchestra. They love music and they love to debate music. He recalled a concert of difficult 20th-century music that had the audience arguing vociferously afterward about Messiaen's merits. And one night after a performance of the Brahms ``German Requiem,'' his audience sat completely silent for 30 seconds drinking in the experience of the music before bursting into applause.

Poor pay for players

Achieving democratic stability and desperately needed economic growth in Poland will be a long haul. Some of the musicians in the Krak'ow Philharmonic make less than $60 a month - very poor pay even by Polish standards. ``We've been declared a national treasure by the Polish government - which is a wonderful designation to have, but that and $1.15 will get you a ride on the subway. So we've had to begin to explore the private sector. American firms have come into Poland wanting to do business. There are the same opportunities for a company to get involved in an orchestra in Krak'ow as there are in New York. As an American, I can help the orchestra.''

Levine already has brought in seven or eight times his own salary in donations, recording deals, tour contracts, and more. All the money he has generated has been used to benefit the players directly: ``It gets me involved in the lives of the musicians, not to interfere, but in helping them. And that's very gratifying.''

But the greatest source of satisfaction for Maestro Levine lies in making music with the Krak'ow Philharmonic:

``You see an amazing transformation that takes place on the stage - the way the musicians give themselves to the music. They come to work and there is a communion between them and the audience that is really rather remarkable. Not every week, not every time. But a lot of the time. It has enriched my life to make music with them. If you've been deprived of all the material comforts, you have to dig a lot deeper in the life of the spirit. Music is for the Poles very, very serious communication.''

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