USF Health Orchestra and Choir will perform Dec. 9 and 11

By Sandra Amrhein
 
The USF Health Orchestra and Choir will perform holiday concerts at 7 p.m., Tuesday Dec. 9 and at noon Thursday, Dec. 11. The concerts will be held in the USF Health Rotunda and are free to the public, though donations are welcome and go to support the USF Health BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic. The musical program will include works such as the Nicaraguan revolution ballad “El Cristo de Palacaguina” and a fantasy on “Twelve Days of Christmas” that journeys across musical history.

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They arrive after a day studying anatomy, lecturing on genetics or working in offices and laboratories:

There is the neuropathologist on oboe. The College of Medicine associate dean for student affairs on flute. The industrial psychologist from Moffitt Cancer Center on cello.

Shortly after 6:30 p.m. on a Monday evening, about two dozen of them chatter, place their chairs in rows of a semi-circle, and fill a small classroom in the Morsani Center with tentative, discordant noise.

“Tuning!” calls their leader, Dr. Frazier Stevenson, tapping his white conductor’s wand on his music stand at the front of the group. Just moments earlier Stevenson had whisked into the room carrying a still-hot burger in a fast-food white paper bag. “Strings!”

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Every Monday night for the past three years, members of the USF Health Orchestra and Choir have gathered here, a reprieve from the pressure of their day jobs, research and studies, to bask in the warmth of a task and a beauty of a different realm. They are students, faculty and staff members from USF Health, as well as other university departments and members of the larger community, who for years have nurtured a separate passion for music alongside their careers.

“It’s completely different than the way we use our brain the rest of the day,” says Chelsea Schmitt, 23, a long-time violin player who is studying for a master’s degree in medical sciences.

On this evening, they are rehearsing for the upcoming holiday concert to be held Dec. 9 and Dec. 11 in the USF Health Rotunda (see information above). It is one of three sets of concerts performed by the orchestra and chorus throughout the year.

As the members settle into their seats, Stevenson focuses their energies on the first of the pieces for the holiday concert: “El Cristo de Palacaguina.” It is a Nicaraguan revolutionary Christmas song and will be accompanied by the chorus, a guitar and castanets. The violins are sweeping and majestic, the rhythms intricate and the flute melody sonorous.

Some members tap out the rhythms with a foot clad in sneakers or sandals; most have come here in jeans and sweatshirts, shorts and T-shirts; a few are still in medical scrubs.

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After several run-throughs, they move onto “A Musicological Journey through the Twelve Days of Christmas.” Stevenson has orchestrated the clever piece, originally for piano and chorus, himself– as he does with much of the music, re-writing horn parts, for example, for the saxophones in the group. On this piece, each day of Christmas enjoys its own genre of music – from the baroque, to a Mozart-like arrangement, to a romantic, breathtaking take on the Dying Swan, to a thundering Wagner-esque piece, a Johann Strauss waltz and a John Philip Sousa march.

“That’s it! That’s Tchaikovsky!” Stevenson yells happily after a flawless run-through of a part that carries echoes of The Nutcracker.

His exuberance and energy are a hallmark of the rehearsals and keep them moving steadily along for the full two hours. Stevenson, a nephrologist and associate dean for undergraduate medical education at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, has also performed as a conductor, pianist and singer with the Tampa Bay Master Chorale as well as choruses in San Francisco and Sacramento.

The USF Health orchestra members are fully accustomed to his jocular prodding and witty asides.

“The idea is if you don’t play, you have to dance,” he jokes, asking more of an alto saxophone player.

“It’s a little chatter boxy,” he says at another point, asking the violins for a less assertive, rounder tone in a pastoral piece. “It’s not shepherds in New York City.”

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Clarinet player Hannah Rutherford says Stevenson’s additional fun stories – such as the time he outlined the health conditions of the late, great composers, from bipolar disorder to syphilis– are among the highlights of participating in the orchestra.

Rutherford, 23, who is studying for a master’s degree in medical sciences, played clarinet in bands through her undergraduate years at Duke University and through graduate school at Boston University. She is applying to medical school at USF among other schools, and says the existence of this orchestra played an important role in attracting her to the university.

“I’ll do this if I go to med school,” says Rutherford, who plays an exquisite solo in one of the movements of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

“My goal for our group is to bring great music to the performers and audience while making the learning process fun,” Stevenson says. “We cover a lot of musical ground (from medieval music to Beethoven and Bach, to an Arvo Pärt piece from the 1970s), and have a lot of fun doing so, building interprofessional collaboration at USF Health. I like to challenge the players to produce their best possible outcome, while at the same time respecting that these are busy professionals. Perhaps the most rewarding thing is watching players who have not played in years gradually get their technique back and produce collective beautiful music.”

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Many in the orchestra feel that they get as much out of it as they give back in playing.

“This is a stress relief,” says Stefany Martinez, a tenor saxophone player and a clinician in outpatient processing in the bone marrow transplant clinic at the Moffitt Cancer Center. “I’m dealing with blood and sutures all day.”

For Martinez, one of her favorite moments is on the day of performance, when she sees some of the patients from the clinic in the audience, a look of peace and enjoyment on their faces.

“This is a form of medicine, too,” she says.

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Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Office of Communications