Tonight a team of young Oak Bay High dramatists tackles an intimidating 500-plus page oratorio written 44 years ago by a Holocaust survivor.
Peter Gary has a wife he loves along with two Labrador dogs and seven chickens on a quiet piece of the Saanich Peninsula.
“I live every hour of my life living as fruitfully as possible,” he says.
He calculates more than 66,000 high schoolers from Oak Bay to Powell River have heard his messages over more than two decades.
“Stamp out hate. For you, for your future children and grandchildren you deserve a better life than mine was,” he says. “That’s what I say to them. My world got screwed up. Don’t let it happen to theirs.”
They still tell him, 20 years later, “I never forgot your message.”
Well before he started speaking with youth, Gary penned his oratorio, A Twentieth Century Passion.
It shares very little of his personal tale. Born in Poland in 1924, the composer started piano by age 5 and was accepted into the Franz Liszt Royal Academy at age 11.
On Christmas Eve 1941, Gary and his mother were arrested by Nazis, and his mother killed. Gary survived various death camps before he was liberated in April 1945. The then 21-year-old weighed 76 pounds.
The composition starts at the First World War and flows through to the Nuremberg trials in a bid to share the entire story.
“Every year in Carmel, California they had a Bach festival in a beautiful church in the middle of downtown and people fly in from all over. It’s so well done,” Gary says. He went for years, and always took the musical score to follow along with his ears, eyes, heart and brain.
“That year I forgot the score. I forgot it at home, and I closed my eyes and as I’m listening to this immense composition some force turned around the notes … and grabbed my hand and I started to see what it was writing,” he says. “When people ask, ‘What is this superstition?’ I say you’re damn right. I feel those children were guiding me. I owed it.”
“Those children” being the small bodies he carried from trucks – makeshift gas chambers – under the Nazi eye.
Gary shifts the conversation with dry wit – again – to tonight’s performance at Oak Bay High.
“They want to do it in somebody’s honour so I have to see who the hell he is,” he says, the straight man, as if it’s not him they plan to honour.
That particular spotlight is a challenge for Gary; he’s put the kibosh on applications to honour him before.
“I could never, ever derive honour or financial advantage for what I do. I owe it for the bodies of dead children I carried out of trucks,” he says. “I owe it to those whose stuff I was sorting out in the warehouses.”
They were just two of the horrifying tasks he was given as a teen in the death camps.
Under direction of Steven Price, the teens at Oak Bay High will read segments of the A Twentieth Century Passion on stage in the Dave Dunnet Community Theatre.
“When they told me they want to read the lyrics without the music … (I thought) wait, wait, wait that doesn’t make sense. Then I heard it. And I said, you know what, they’re very powerful (words),” he says. “It was to me a revelation.
“He wants to do it his way with the kids. I trust the teacher, that’s what he does,” Gary says. “I may write something, (but) the moment there is someone standing up in front of 40, 60, 80 musicians raises his hands … it’s his. It’s Steven’s from now on.”
The same goes for the world premier of the full oratorio planned for April 2017 in Jerusalem. A hall has been booked and a conductor chosen, and the event tonight will help fund the affair, says organizer Bill Southward.
“The idea is to honour Peter but but also be a fundraiser to host the event in Jerusalem,” he says.
“We think Vancouver Island should step up because of the blessing Peter’s been to our youth.”
Oak Bay High students will read from the piece, A Twentieth Century Passion – tonight to celebrate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, at 7:30 p.m. in the school’s community theatre.
Admission is free, with donations to help fund the world premier in Jeruslam accepted at the end of the evening.
Visit a20thcenturypassion.org online to learn more.