Friday, October 21, 2016

The world premiere of Peter Gary's "A 20th Century Passion" October 17th 2016 in Jerusalem

Dr. Peter Gary (photo: Judy Estrin)

On October 17th 2016, A. Peter Gary’s “A 20th Century Passion” was premiered in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. Peter Gary (Grünberg) was born in 1924 to an upper middle class Budapest family. Musically gifted, he studied with Zoltán Kodály and Leo Weiner, taking master classes with Béla Bartók. In 1941, he and his mother were taken to the Hungarian-Polish border to be gunned down. His mother was killed protecting him. Peter Gary was one of four people to crawl out of the pit alive. He was interned in the Majdanek, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen death camps, surviving long enough to be freed by the British Army on his 21st birthday. He then went on to continue his music studies, receiving a Ph.D. in Musicology from the Sorbonne University. Dr. Gary immigrated to the USA in 1950, working in the Hollywood film industry, teaching as guest professor in the University of California and composing. He also studied rehabilitation medicine and worked in that field. In 1991, Gary immigrated to Victoria, BC., where he continued composing and worked untiringly with young people to spread the message of tolerance and compassion, telling thousands of pupils of his survival of the Holocaust. “A 20th Century Passion”, dedicated by the composer to children who perished in the Holocaust,  was composed over more than three years in the 1970s, then remaining unperformed. At the initiative of his wife, Judy Estrin, it was premiered on October 17th 2016 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater. Sadly, the composer passed away a month prior to the premiere, on September 18th, never to hear his largest-scale work performed.

Scored for two choirs, orchestra, five vocal soloists and two narrators, most of the work’s verbal text was written by the composer himself, with some texts written by children who perished in the Holocaust. Conductor Barak Tal, musical director of the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, travelled to Canada to meet with the composer in the summer of 2015, worked with him on the piece and decided to undertake direction of the premiere. Under Maestro Barak Tal’s baton, the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director: Yuval Benozer) were joined by sopranos Ayelet Cohen and Masha Shapiro, mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon, tenor Moshe Haas, baritone Yair Polishook and narrators Zohar Sadan and Naomi Shalev.

The oratorio is chronological, starting out at the end of World War I, following the rise of Nazi power and concluding with the Nuremberg Trial. Recital of the “Kaddish” (mourners’ payer) is threaded through the opening Overture. From there the work proceeds in solos, duets and choral sections, the texts for most having been written by the composer. In certain of the more naïve sections, such as “The Butterfly”, Naomi Shalev’s sweetly childlike speaking of the text was echoed in pure, wistful and young sounds by soprano Masha Shapiro:

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone...

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished
to kiss the world goodbye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
In the ghetto.     (Pavel Friedman, 1921-1944)

Mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon’s solos were articulate, her singing rich and refined; her somewhat distant singing of horrific descriptions, however, needed more vehemence and emotion. Tenor Moshe Haas was impressive in his recounting of the Holocaust story, his fine-timbred tenor voice fraught with anguish and a sense of hopelessness. Baritone Yair Polishook’s performance was powerful both vocally and emotionally, no tender or dramatic gesture unaddressed. A singer with a well-rounded, large voice and fine vocal control, Ayelet Cohen’s performance was gripping, as in “You’ll live, my child”, a text set to the melody of a Hungarian children’s song, reflecting a mother’s heartbreak at losing a child.  As per usual, the high-quality, musical and competent singing of members of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble gave due weight to both texts and music, with Maestro Barak Tal’s direction drawing all threads together with musical assuredness and dedication.

Peter Gary’s score, skilfully handled by players of the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, is a succinct, tasteful soundscape of contemporary writing, sound orchestration, notable writing for piano and voices and plenty of variety of ideas. In Peter Gary’s own words: “We composers are a strange lot. Our creative art is the most abstract form of all other creativity. The most important factor in all of the arts is the need to express something by the artist. I hope I have done this, almost forty years ago. I feel I did owe it for surviving the Holocaust and giving the world an avenue to remember it.” In the work’s Finale, the singing of four male singers, representing judges at the Nuremberg Trials, is broken into by the choir entering pianissimo and rising to fortissimo, with the shouting of the quartet over the choir and orchestra indicative of Gary’s scepticism as to “This cannot happen again”. The concert, broadcast live to listeners in Canada, was dedicated to Peter Gary’s memory.



Judy Estrin said...

In Victoria, we were transfixed by the performance. This was the first time I had truly heard the music - Peter always played it off of his computer. It was masterful. Barak Tal brought life to the music.

Hezi Messenberg said...

We were fortunate to attend the premiere performance of this emotional and moving Oratorio.
"Passion to the 20'th Century" will forever be a legacy to the Holocaust and a living
memory to composer Peter Gary Z"L and conductor Barak Tal.
Deborah and Yeheskel Messenberg. Herzelia, Israel.