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From Bench to Brahms
by Richard Saltus
At least one evening a week, doctors and scientists from Boston’s biomedical community escape the laboratory or bedside to unleash their musical creativity with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra (LSO).
In this acclaimed amateur orchestra they’ve found an outlet for a lifelong passion that ended up playing second fiddle to their demanding careers.
“A lot of scientists and physicians use music to enrich their lives, to recharge after a long day of work, and to pursue another avenue that is artistic yet just as fulfilling,” says Sherman Jia, a violinist and LSO concertmaster. Jia is an HHMI medical research fellow in the lab of HHMI investigator Bruce Walker, an HIV-AIDS researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The orchestra’s 120 musicians represent nearly every major biomedical institution in Massachusetts, says violinist and LSO president Lisa Wong. Architects, teachers, dentists, software engineers, and biotech workers also sprinkle the ranks.
For the LSO, music is more than entertainment; through performances, it raises awareness and funds for nonprofit medical organizations that support research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and genetic disorders. Also, through “LSO on Call” it brings music to patients in hospitals, hospices, and rehabilitation centers.
The weekly rehearsals plus extra practices for five major concerts a year strain the schedules of busy doctors and scientists. For many, though, the LSO, founded in 1982, is a high priority.
Several years ago, for instance, HHMI investigator and LSO principal trumpet Leonard Zon rushed in late to a rehearsal. Zon, head of stem cell research at Children’s Hospital Boston, was trying to squeeze in the rehearsal before flying to Washington to brief legislators on stem cell research.
“I do everything I can to get there,” says Zon. “The orchestra is a great venue for relaxing amid the pace of everyday life as a physician-scientist, and it has a wonderful mission to help people in need.” On that day, however, the conductor sent him off: “‘Go to Congress and educate them on stem cells,’” Zon recalls.
For many, as with science, classical music is a family tradition.
“My grandfather was a doctor and a violinist—he would play every time I visited as a child,” recalls Mark Emerson, a postdoc in the Harvard laboratory of HHMI investigator Connie Cepko. “I started playing in fifth grade, and my grandfather gave me his violin. I think about him every time I play in a concert.”
At one point, Emerson thought about playing violin professionally. But he’s happy he became a scientist and joined the LSO to maintain his affair with music. Emerson says Zon’s example “was what made me think I could balance the two.”
For Maria Lehtinen, something had to give. She is a violinist, a pianist, and a postdoc in the lab of HHMI investigator Christopher Walsh at Children’s Hospital Boston. She was thrilled to join the LSO in 1999. “There aren’t many opportunities to play in an orchestra unless you’re a very serious professional,” Lehtinen says. However, her career has intensified and she now has a family, forcing her to resign. “I’d really like to come back,” she says. “I’ve thought about it a lot. But for now, I’m just too busy.”
Comings and goings are a fact of life for LSO members. So far, Emerson is successfully juggling his research, family life, and the orchestra.
“One of the main reasons is the community outreach work,” Emerson says. Another motivation is the family tradition; like his grandfather, he is handing down the gift of music to his children.
“My son, who’s four, has a little violin,” says Emerson. “When I’m practicing, he likes to stand up and conduct me.”
Illustration: Ping Zhu