Intermezzo: Carmel Bach Festival inspires Holocaust survivor’s ‘Passion’
A few months ago, at a Carmel Bach Festival event, Executive Director Debbie Chinn introduced me to a lovely woman by the name of Judy Estrin. She told me of her composer husband Peter Gary’s “A 20th Century Passion” oratorio and its unusual connection to J. S. Bach and the festival.
In 1941, torn from his home and comfortable world in Hungary, Gary, age 17, entered the unspeakable horror realms of the Nazis. When liberated by the British Army from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on his 21st birthday, he weighed only 76 pounds. He survived the holocaust and his love of music survived with him.
Born to a prominent musical family, he began his studies at the age of 5. His aunt was the world-famous pianist Lili Krause and his mother’s cousin was Eugene Ormany, the well-known conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gary studied to be a composer and conductor before the war, and picked up his education again after the liberation. In 1950, he arrived in the United States to start a new life.
Though he found he couldn’t make a living at it, Gary continued to write music. In the 1970s, while enjoying a festival performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” a momentous occurrence took place for him.
“I attended these excellent (Bach Festival) concerts several years in ideal settings, following these masterpieces with my ears and heart as well as my eyes looking at the musical score I took with me to the concert,” he says.
One summer he left the score at home. As he listened to the sounds of Bach, conducted by Hungarian maestro Sandor Salgo, a strange feeling came over him.
He said to himself, “How come the life and death of one Jew, namely Jesus Christ, is depicted with the greatest music ever written from Bach to Bernstein in oratorios, requiems, passions, but ... there is nothing in the world musical literature about the life and death of 6 million?”
Then he remembers his hand turning the program over without his own conscious direction and penning the words “A Twentieth Century Passion.”
He says it was as if those who lost their lives in the holocaust guided his hand. So began the creation of his own monumental oratorio passion about the Holocaust, which starts with the rise of Nazi power after World War I and ends with the Nuremberg trials 26 years later.
Estrin says fundraising is still underway for the project, which includes both the world premiere of “A 20th Century Passion” in Jerusalem and a documentary about the life journey of the composer. For more information about this remarkable undertaking sparked by Bach in Carmel,