Peter Breiner, born 1957
Peter Breiner was born in Humenné, a city in eastern Slovakia, in 1957. His parents, Ernest and Edita, were both Holocaust survivors and his father also spent many years in a labor camp. His father managed several restaurants while his mother was a teacher. Peter and his younger brother and parents lived with his paternal grandparents, who attempted to maintain Orthodox Jewish traditions – a task which Peter says was not easy during the communist era. Peter began music lessons at a very young age and, by the time he was nine years old, he was taking the train to Košice once a week to study piano with a professor. Following his eighth grade year, Peter moved to Košice to study piano, composition and conducting at the conservatory. He continued his musical education at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. While at university, Peter worked as a train conductor and as a music producer for Czechoslovak Radio. Because he failed his Marxist-Leninist exam, says Peter, he was required to spend one extra year at university to repeat the class.
Following his graduation, Peter began working as a freelance musician, performing, conducting and composing. He married and had a daughter. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Peter took the opportunity to travel. He says that he applied to seven countries for permanent residency; as he received permission from Canada straightaway, he and his family moved to Toronto in 1992. He visited New York for the first time when the American Ballet Theatre put on a performance of his works; later Peter applied for and received a green card. He moved to New York City in 2007 and, today, lives in close proximity to the house where Antonín Dvořák lived while in New York.
Peter is a prolific and renowned musician. He has conducted nearly every major orchestra, and his arrangements and recordings are especially popular. Peter is currently working on a multimedia program based on his orchestral piece called ‘Slovak Dances, Naughty and Nice’. He is also a writer, authoring a column for a popular Slovak newspaper. Since his childhood, Peter has been an avid soccer player and plays in the city four times a week. Today he lives in Manhattan.
Peter recalls an early memory
“I remember spending some enjoyable time, at four or five years old, at a music school in Slovakia with a particular teacher who, for some reason, decided that I am worth investing his time into. So I, on occasion – as I have been told – I even ran away from home to go to music school. So when they couldn’t find me they went ‘Oh, he’s probably at the music school again.’ That is a memory other people have; I don’t quite recall it. I just remember that particular teacher, Mr. Fecura, who was a very nice and friendly person and who was one of my first contacts with music-making.”
Although his family was Jewish, Peter says that he was ‘confused’ about their religious leanings
“For obvious reasons my parents were too scared to be Jewish after what they’d been through. We lived with my paternal grandparents and they were very religious. They were almost Orthodox Jews, to an extent that was possible during communism, because there was no synagogue left in Humenné and not much kosher food available, if any. So they really tried and, on top of that, my parents maintained general Slovak cultural traditions, including [having] a Christmas tree and Easter, so it was quite confusing for me. Even when I went to school there was still religion taught – it was one of the last years – and so, Friday afternoon, a local Catholic priest arrived, looked at the grade one kids and saw me, and said ‘Oh, my son. You can go home.’ I was terribly upset because I wanted to take part in everything all the other kids did, but I wasn’t allowed to, and without any explanation. At home I wasn’t told why I was sent home, so I had no idea. Monday, again when we all got together, it was discussed: ‘Why was I sent home?’ Nobody knew; I didn’t know until one of my classmates came with an explanation and said ‘Oh, I know why it happened. Because his father is a communist.’
“So it was rather confusing and, the same way as I learned about the past of my parents, the same way I picked up information about our religious background, or whatever it was, and it was up to myself to figure out by reading and by putting things together that ‘Hey, it looks like we are Jewish, even with a Christmas tree and Easter eggs and everything. We probably are Jewish.’”
Peter says that the perks of being a talented musician as a child outweighed the downsides
“As a child you have many different interests, so there moments when it was quite difficult and overwhelming to cope with the fact that I had to spend four hours every day practicing piano at the age when all the other kids were running around outside and having fun. But somehow that fascination with music that I had since I can remember – plus the perks, in the form of skipping school once a week and being on my own for an entire day as at ten or eleven years old I was taking the train to Košice and going to the restaurant for lunch on my own – kept me going, because it was quite unusual and had a sense of adventure in it and a sense of being different and doing things other kids didn’t; and I was entering competitions and I was meeting great musicians who were on a very different level and I was competing with people that were much older. So that all played together to the extent that it wasn’t overly difficult to overcome that aversion that naturally developed after awhile when it became clear that there has to be time spent in order to get any further.
“I think my mother was quite ambitious for me and then I adopted that ambition as well, and once I entered the conservatory the fascination with all things musical I was able to do all the time was too strong to even think about a different career or a different direction in my life. It was just very straight and very clear to me that there is nothing else I want to do.”
Peter immigrated to Canada in 1992, following the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia
“Turned out that the best thing out of it was freedom to travel, which I used immediately, and I asked for permanent residency in seven different countries. I didn’t care where I would go, I just wanted where I didn’t want to be. Despite the fact that I was already a fairly prominent figure in Slovak music and had some success, it was so severely limited by people that would make an effort to consciously hurt me or my career, and I thought ‘This is not going to get any better.’ I was aware that at that time I had and exclusive contract with a recording label in Hong Kong [and] I knew that was taken care of for at least two years, financially, so I said to myself and my family ‘Let’s go somewhere. Whether it’s New Zealand or Australia or Holland or England or Germany or Canada or U.S.A…’ I applied to seven different countries, and Canada replied positively and first, so we went to Canada. I didn’t know anyone there; I just decided to go and be there, and it worked.”
When Peter moved to New York in 2007 he fulfilled a lifelong ‘unconscious’ dream
“My grandmother’s cousin immigrated to the United States, I think, shortly after the War – or even during the War – I’m not sure, but they lived in Cleveland and, about once a year, she would send a package from America. The famous package from America: chewing gum, jeans, and, of course, being myself, I had special requests, which were scores. I wanted Gershwin’s scores because they were completely unattainable, like any American scores. So I was 14 when, in one of those famous packages, there were jeans made of stars and stripes – the American flag. Of course the first thing I did was wear it on the street. After ten minutes I was stopped by a policeman and sent home to change. I realized I can’t walk on the street, but I took it to school and I changed at school. So after ten minutes I was stopped by the director of the school and sent home too. That was my first American experience, and the other was West Side Story. When the movie arrived in Slovakia I went to see it eight times in one week. I was completed fascinated by it, and so on some unconscious level that was always my final destination, even if consciously I was aware that it’s just impossible.”
Category: New York City, Oral History