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December 21, 2007

Medicine and Music: Boston's Longwood Symphony Orchestra

You like to think that after visiting 115 U.S. orchestras you would have seen just about every model there is. But number 116 was unlike any other orchestra I've seen. The Longwood Symphony Orchestra (in Boston) is in its 25th season. Its budget is about $250,000 per year, but to give that proper perspective one must factor in that the musicians are not paid. This is a volunteer orchestra, about 75 percent of whom are doctors and medical professionals. Its board chair (Nick Tawa) is a surgeon, and its president (Lisa Wong) is a pediatrician. Both also play in the orchestra. The music director is Jonathan McPhee - he's been there for about three seasons, and has been encouraging growth, both artistically and scope of activity. They won the League of American Orchestras' MetLife Award for Excellence in Community Engagement last year...

Adding to the unique nature of the LSO is the fact that every concert in their history has been a benefit concert for a medical-associated nonprofit. They sell their tickets to the "beneficiary" (their term for the partner organization) at a low price and let the organization sell them at a higher price and keep the difference. Often they have worked with relatively small organizations, and have mentored them in the art of using a gala event as a fundraiser. They almost always surround the concert with symposia about the medical issue that the beneficiary organization deals with, trying where possible to relate it to music, or the power of music to heal. The concert I attended on Saturday, December 1, 2007 benefited three organizations: the Seven Hills Foundation on Behavioral Health; The Global Health Initiative at Boston University; and Classical Action: Performing Arts Against Aids. The LSO and Boston University organized a community conversation at BU called "Aids: Connecting the Local and the Global". The concert was at Jordan Hall, and was close to sold out. This model has been consistent from the LSO's beginning. The concert that I saw would challenge any professional orchestra:

REVUELTAS: Sensemayá
MUSSORGSKY: Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov
JANÁČEK: Glagolitic Mass

The concert was astonishing. The string writing in the Janáček, and the tricky rhythms of the Revueltas, are not easy for professional orchestras, let alone one made up largely of people who practice medicine for a living. But there was no sense of this being a volunteer orchestra - and Jonathan McPhee conducted with both clarity and intensity. The New World Chorale was a terrific chorus, and the four soloists provided by Classical Action - Marjorie Elinor Dix, Mary Phillips, John Bellemer, and Gustav Andreassen - could have graced the performance of any international-level orchestra, despite the difficulty of the solo writing, particularly for the soprano and tenor. This was one of the few fully volunteer orchestras I have heard in recent years (except for youth orchestras), and the only one where most of the musicians practiced a demanding other profession - and I was not at all prepared for the high quality of the playing. The fact that this concert attracted a full house - and a cheering audience - in a city where there are plenty of good and great alternative orchestras, is yet one more demonstration of the fact that there is indeed a vital and meaningful life for symphonic music, a life that occurs in many shapes and forms in this country.

Also indicative of their growth is a planned tour to London in June; they will keep their pattern, with St. Bartholomew Hospital in London as their beneficiary. The symposium will be "The Healing Art of Music" - and there will be symposia with the doctor/musicians focused on cancer care, as well as two concerts. The LSO hopes in the future to travel to Africa or to countries in other under-developed areas. The twin missions of bringing a large number of doctor-musicians to under-developed countries, both to counsel local medical centers and to make music can only be called inspiring. The deep connection that the Longwood Symphony Orchestra makes between community health and music is, if I may be excused for being sappy, uplifting.

Posted by hfogel at December 21, 2007 10:48 AM

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Thanks for talking about this group. I never heard them during my student days in Boston (in the late 90s), but I'm not surprised that an orchestra of doctors would play well - there are certainly a lot of accomplished student musicians out there who opt for other professions.

With far too many concerts, you wonder what the point of it all was. Your report suggests the Longwood SO's shows have compelling musical and non-musical reasons for being.

I also appreciated this post because it confirmed what I experienced in Boston; the ability to enjoy a rich concert life while hardly ever listening to the BSO (which was too expensive for my student finances back then).

Posted by: Marko Velikonja at December 21, 2007 11:49 PM

Dear Henry:
Thank you so much for your wonderful words, and thanks even more for spending time with us here in Boston. Your visit was a catalyst and inspiration to us all.

Just a quick clarification about our London tour. It is entitled "Innovations in Cancer Care: Bridging the Atlantic". At St. Barts and Royal Marsden Hospitals, we will be exchanging ideas with our medical colleagues in the cancer field, to be followed by performances for patients in hospitals and hospices, as well as two public performances in major concert venues in London. These will benefit Marie Curie Cancer Care, the largest cancer charity in the UK, which is celebrating its 60th year. Our soloists will be soprano Janna Baty and the remarkable violinist David Juritz, who has just busked around the world for his new charity Musequality, an organization promoting global music education.

LSO will bring American music to Britain's shores with works by David Diamond and the original Copland score of "Appalachian Spring" as well as Vaughn Williams and Villa-Lobos.

Posted by: Lisa Wong at December 23, 2007 3:36 PM

Orchestra combined from doctors that's interesting. Nice time together to relax.

Posted by: Ambulance Nurse at January 10, 2008 7:05 AM