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Musical interludes, just as the doctor ordered

The Longwood Symphony Orchestra, on stage at Jordan Hall, has raised over $700,000 for medical programs since 1991. The Longwood Symphony Orchestra, on stage at Jordan Hall, has raised over $700,000 for medical programs since 1991.

What do you say to the first violinist who calls to say she couldn't make rehearsal because she was performing emergency surgery to save the life of a child?

If you're Jonathan McPhee, conductor of the 90-member Longwood Symphony Orchestra, you say, "Please don't hurry. We can wait."

It turned out Dr. Terry Buchmiller, a pediatric surgeon, wasn't about to be hurried, McPhee recalled. "She told me, 'I never rush -- not when it comes to surgery or music.' "

The phone call came 15 minutes before a Longwood Symphony rehearsal for the orchestra's annual performance on the Esplanade last summer. Buchmiller, by the way, made the rehearsal.

Buchmiller is just one of many Boston medical professionals who are members of the LSO, established in 1982 by members of the Harvard Medical School community.

The LSO has a dual mission: medicine and music. The orchestra allows talented amateur musicians to strive for artistic excellence while supporting healthrelated nonprofit organizations through public performances.

So, under the LSO's "Healing Art of Music" program, when the orchestra sells out Boston's Jordan Hall for four concerts with 700 in attendance each year, proceeds aid such charities as the Shriners Hospitals for Children, the Seven Hills Foundation, the Reed R. Sacco Memorial Foundation, and the Massachusetts Consortium for Children with Special Health Care Needs. Since 1991, the orchestra has helped raise over $700,000 for the medically underserved.

Their work hasn't gone unnoticed. The American Symphony Orchestra League, in a ceremony late last month in Nashville, chose the LSO for one of its 2007 MetLife Awards for Excellence in Community Engagement for the "Healing Art of Music program; the awards honor programs that can serve as models for other orchestras

Most recently, Merck Research Laboratories awarded the orchestra a $25,000 grant.

"The LSO plays a very unique role within our community," said Dr. Lex Van der Ploeg, vice president and site head of Merck in Boston. "By bringing together local healthcare professionals with a passion for music, they create an unparalleled orchestral experience while raising money to support underserved medical programs."

McPhee, who also conducts the North Shore-based Symphony by the Sea and the orchestra for the Boston Ballet, has long since gotten used to beepers and pagers going off in the middle of a rehearsal.

But he has also gotten used to medical musicians who are focused, intelligent, and fearless.

"They are Type A personalities and highly motivated," said McPhee. "Six or seven are conservatory-trained. At one point they had to make that choice between music and medicine."

McPhee had been in the wings as a guest conductor for about 15 years, and never really thought he'd take over. But three years ago the LSO board approached him about the position. He has since gotten used to the ups and downs of working with an orchestra whose members may appear and disappear on a moment's notice.

"It took me a while to figure out the medical rotations and how their work life functions," said McPhee.

More than half of the LSO musicians work in the health sciences: this year, there are 15 full-time physicians, eight research scientists, 12 medical students, four visiting physicians from Europe, two nurses, three physical therapists, a genetics counselor, and a chiropractor.

Although the regular concert season is over, the LSO is still rehearsing for its annual appearance on the Esplanade, set for Aug. 22 at the Hatch Shell.

Dr. Alanna Morris, an LSO cellist who lives in Brookline, is in her third year of residency in internal medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She joined the orchestra six years ago while a medical student. With the long hours of a resident, it's even more difficult for her to combine music and medicine now.

"My co-residents are very supportive of me," she said.

Rich Fahey can be reached at