Delivering doses of sweet harmony

Doctor-musicians play for patients

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 18, 2009

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As musicians from the Longwood Symphony Orchestra played selections from Dvorak’s “American Quartet,’’ 50 Vietnamese immigrants, mostly in their 70s and 80s, sat in plush chairs at a Dorchester day-care center for the elderly, listening raptly. Tears welled in Mary Nguyen’s eyes. Never in her 72 years had she heard such music, she said.

“I’m very happy,’’ she said in English after the music stopped. Switching to Vietnamese, Nguyen, who immigrated in 1986 and who has been in and out of nursing homes in recent years, spoke rapidly and drew semicircles in the air with her arms, in a flight of fancy.

“She feels like a bird flying in the sky, and she feels younger than before,’’ said Lien Nguyen, a social worker and activity coordinator at the SarahCare center, translating as the older woman beamed.

Similar scenes played out across the region yesterday, as the orchestra - made up mostly of doctors, researchers, and caregivers from the Boston area - split into small groups to make the equivalent of chamber-music house calls to hospitals, hospice facilities, and other care centers. It was a change from their typical large-scale performances at venues such as New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, which raise money and awareness for Boston’s medically underserved populations.

“To launch this year, instead of having a concert in Jordan Hall, where we usually play for 800 to 1,000 audience members, we thought we’d bring it to the patients,’’ said Dr. Lisa M. Wong, a pediatrician and strings player who serves as president of the orchestra.

They reached a similar number yesterday, playing for a total of about 800 in nearly two dozen small concerts. The musicians were broken into 14 groups for “LSO on Call: Health and Harmony in the City.’’

The “on call’’ program started last year, with one group a month playing chamber music for patients in the field. The experience proved as rewarding for the musician-caregivers as it did for the patients, so the organization decided to try it on a larger scale yesterday, Wong said.

The pediatrician’s quartet played for Alzheimer’s patients in the morning at Jamaica Plain’s Sherrill House and visited Boston Shriners Hospital in the afternoon, playing for pediatric burn victims. In between, Wong caught the Dorchester performance.

“I think it’s fitting the ‘American Quartet’ is being played for people who have been through so much to get here,’’ she whispered, as the Vietnamese immigrants listened to the composition formally known as Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F. “It just seems so right.’’

In most settings, the string and woodwind-wielding musicians offered glimpses of their scientific sides, too, administering brief surveys to gauge before-and-after levels of pain and stress.

After the Dorchester concert, Dr. Daniela Krause flipped through questionnaires that showed listeners in better spirits afterward, based on answers using a 1-to-5 scale. But the Massachusetts General Hospital cancer researcher and flutist had already seen as much firsthand. In a morning concert at the Women’s Lunch Place, a daytime shelter for women and children in the Back Bay, one woman began dancing spontaneously, the joy evident in her face, Krause said.

In Dorchester, many listeners came up afterward to offer gratitude, translated by Nguyen. Some presented the players with an elaborate fruit salad cut to resemble a garden.

“It was so much fun for us to come here and brighten your day,’’ Krause said, accepting it.

The musicians tailored their performances to the audience. At the Shriners Hospital, where Wong’s quartet played for a small group before visiting patients’ rooms, the pediatrician-violist paused a Mendelssohn cantata a few times to offer a story line about a forest, seeking input from the young patients about the animals represented by the music.

During a minuet, a pair of clowns named Snarfie and Angus chimed in with noisemakers embedded in their gloves; the musicians took it in stride. “I think that was how Mozart originally intended it,’’ said Laura Rosow, a Harvard medical student and violinist.

“It was written for a quartet,’’ Wong added, “and squeaking clowns.’’

Some listeners were more enthusiastic than others. A 6-year-old girl in a billowing Cinderella outfit, her crown resting atop thick bandages, shook her head “no’’ when Wong asked if they wanted an encore. But she grew more interested when the musicians left their seats to play “Old McDonald’’ and “Frere Jacques.’’ Rosow crouched down, letting the girl pluck the strings with her fingers, trace the curves of the wood, and play with the bow.

“Cool,’’ she said, taking it gently. Skin grafts had limited the expression on her face, but her eyes lit up.

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