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Published:January 13th, 2008 13:43 EST
Rock 'n' Roll Orchestra

Rock 'n' Roll Orchestra

By Krzys Wasilewski

When the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity debuted in Poland in 1993, its several musicians collected $1.5 million. Fourteen years later, the Orchestra`s 120,000 volunteers garnered almost 10 times as much.

Throughout its history, the foundation has bought more than 16,000 medical devices valued at $80 million. But for its conductor, Jerzy Owsiak, it is still not enough.

Poles have proclaimed Owsiak the health minister for life. He, on the other hand, likes to call himself a conductor of the world largest orchestra. But if you imagine a silver-haired man in a tuxedo, furiously wielding a baton, you couldn`t be more wrong. This conductor eschews classy outfits in favor of something more resembling a rock `n` roll style.

Although he claims to own several pairs of trousers and shirts (maybe even one suit), most people will always remember Owsiak as a frivolous man dressed in a yellow button shirt and red corduroy trousers-- a pair of eclipse glasses on his square head. Would you trust such a man? Surprising as it seems, a lot of people have trusted him and their number grows year after year.

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers-- or musicians, as they are named in the Orchestra`s slang-- play under his baton, oiling the complex machinery so it can work smoothly on the second Sunday of each new year.

Despite the growing number of aides and sponsors, however, Owsiak does not like to share his responsibilities. With mystical strength, the 54-year-old manages to combine the jobs of a TV producer, a talk show host and the foundation`s director. On the day when the Orchestra begins to play, Owsiak appears on television early in the morning and remains on air into the late hours. He can hardly speak at that time, but one thing never vanishes-- the fire in his eyes is as fierce at 3 am as it was 20 hours earlier.

For more than a decade, Owsiak has been managing an enterprise that, throughout the years, has developed from a local, obscure event into an international curiosity. It all began in 1993 when Owsiak, then hosting a music show on television, invited cardiologists from a children`s hospital to the program. The doctors were alarmed that the hospital lacked some advanced equipment that could save the lives of dozens of more sick kids.

It spurred Owsiak and his friends to start up a foundation that would collect money for under-funded children`s hospitals and clinics. The first $1.5 million they managed to get in 1993-- " quite an achievement for an unknown group of people in a typically suspicious society-- they spent on devices curing heart disease. Fifteen years later he said that it was just to be one TV happening. Nothing big. But we got so much money that it took us almost one year to account for it. We couldn`t stop then and had to organize it once again...and again. "

Owsiak admits that the Orchestra would have never been so successful, were it not for television support. I would be like a beggar at a church, " he said in an interview given in 2002, when the Orchestra reaped almost $7 million to save children with congenital disorders. It is hard to imagine an orchestra playing the same music for 15 consequtive years and still be able to attract scores of listeners.

Since 1993, the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity has changed its program minimally. The scene for each concert looks the same. The Orchestra starts to play on the second Sunday of the new year, at 6 o`clock sharp. At this hour thousands of volunteers-- sometimes as young as five years old-- throng the streets armed only with red heart stickers, the Orchestra`s official sign, carton money-boxes and identity cards. They walk in twos or threes, taking up posts at churches, shopping centers, and parks-- traditional spots of Poles` Sunday meetings. And they wait. Sometimes for 14 hours in the unpleasant, severe coldness of a Polish winter day.

Volunteers` only reward is a warm smile from passersby and the idea that they are doing a good deed. The weight of your money-box and the empty spots from heart stickers show how many people have given money. When the money-box is full-- the most productive volunteers can fill up five or more-- it is taken to local headquarters where coins and banknotes are scrupulously segregated and counted. Then, data is sent to the main office in Warsaw so Owsiak can proudly announce that his musicians have broken another record. Since 1993, when the foundation collected $1.5 million, each Orchestra`s score has been bigger than in the preceding year.

At 8 pm the dark sky over Polish cities is illuminated by the magnitude of fireworks, or lights to heaven, " as Owsiak calls them. Together with concerts held in every big city, the fireworks create a feeling of a national festival rather than a private enterprise.

Owsiak likes to boast about how much and on what the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity has spent its funds. Every year, volunteers collect money for a new goal; for example, in 2000 it was medical equipment for children with kidney disorders. Due to the $6 million that Owsiak`s people garnered, Poland became the first country in Europe to provide each sick child with a portable device to clean their tainted kidneys.

Asked by one journalist why he was doing all this, Owsiak replied: An illness is the worst misfortune in a man`s life. It rips a man of an ability to realize his dreams. Whatever this illness is, it always slows us down, disables us to fully express ourselves. "

Not everyone loves Owsiak. Some Catholic Church leaders accuse him of the promotion of secularism and hedonism, epitomized in Owsiak`s famous phrase, Do what ya want! " They argue that the Orchestra, with its Sunday happenings, promotes libertarianism and diverts teenagers away from church. While some of the church`s complaints seem unreasonable, with the cause of emptying shrines lying elsewhere, it is true that a number of Owsiak`s followers take his words too literally, especially during a two-day rock `n` roll meeting, The Woodstock Stop, " organized by the Orchestra.

Despite Owsiak`s calls not to drink and do drugs during the concerts, some of the 200,000 people who attend the Stop every year appear to be deaf. Who can be surprised considering the fact that the Polish Woodstock tries to live up to the hippie tradition of its 1968 American predecessor-- when drugs, alcohol, and free love were the youth`s commandments.

Just last year one person died and several were wounded at Owsiak`s Woodstock due to excessive drinking. I can`t take responsibility for idiots, " Owsiak keeps saying.

If Jerzy Owsiak lived in the United States, without a doubt, he would be a successful televangelist. Like America`s best, Billy Graham or Pat Robertson, Owsiak also has a devout following of faithful people, willing to do anything their leader tells them. And, just as they do, he wants to save people`s lives.

Unlike Graham or Paterson, however, he does not do this by showing his followers the way to salvation; he leaves it to better qualified priests. Instead, he provides kids with the best medical equipment available so, when they grow up, they can fulfill their dreams-- the dreams that would remain only dreams, were it not for a little respirator or artificial kidney sponsored by the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity,

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