Medicine at Michigan magazine features LSO

Kara GavinRead the full story on the original site here


The Music of Science

The Life Sciences Orchestra at the U-M combines music and medicine.


Carl Engelke could have been a professional musician.

Instead, he’s helping develop new therapeutic strategies to treat cancer as he works toward an M.D. and a Ph.D. His trumpet may have taken a back seat to science, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to him play.

Ellen Janke, (M.D. 1989, Residency 1993) once had a violin teacher warn her about the hard life of a musician — so she chose a path to medicine instead. Now, the same hands that she uses to adjust anesthesia gases for U-M surgical patients also help her navigate the lightning-quick notes of major symphonies.

And Bernhard Muller (M.D. 1964), who started on violin in fourth grade, remembers medical school study sessions accompanied by the sounds of a professor’s string quartet. He kept up his own playing throughout his medical training and decades as a pulmonologist, and now livens up retirement using his late uncle’s viola.

Coming Together

Every Sunday night, Engelke, Janke and Muller join with 62 others from across the spectrum of U-M’s life science community to form one of the nation’s unique symphonic ensembles.

Called the Life Sciences Orchestra, or LSO, it welcomes faculty, staff, students and alumni from across the Medical School and broader Health System, and many of U-M’s other health and life sciences schools, colleges and departments.

For a few hours, they can forget the demands of classes and caseloads, laboratory experiments and work deadlines, patients and prototypes. They can set aside the fact that they’re nurses and dental students, biomedical engineers and health economists, medical students and lab technicians, physicians and environmental scientists.

Their rank in the academic universe — from undergraduate to professor emeritus — vanishes.

Every year or two, the LSO welcomes a new conductor, as doctoral students get placed in the post by Kenneth Kiesler, who heads the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s world-renowned orchestral conducting studio.

Past LSO conductors now lead ensembles around the nation, from Seattle to Nevada, and cite the orchestra as one of their formative conducting experiences.

This season, Roberto Kalb holds the LSO baton, as the Gilbert S. Omenn Music Director. He splits his time between Ann Arbor and St. Louis, where he conducts members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as part of his job as assistant conductor to Opera Theater of Saint Louis. A native of Mexico, he’s an award-winning composer as well as conductor.

Twice a year, the LSO shares its music with the community through free concerts at Hill Auditorium.

The next performance, on Sunday, April 24 at 4 p.m., features an ambitious program: the entire first act of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” complete with national-level vocalists, a concerto for organ by Poulenc, and Gershwin’s famous “An American in Paris.”

Let’s Put on a Show

The LSO got its start in 2000 as the idea of a first-year U-M otolaryngology resident who had played in a medical orchestra while at Harvard Medical School. He approached the director of the Health System’s Gifts of Art program, Elaine Sims, about starting such a group in Ann Arbor.

Though most of her programs to date had focused on bringing art and music directly into U-M’s health care environment, Sims knew a good idea when she heard one.

“There is a well-documented connection between music and those who pursue careers in medicine,” she says. “In the first week we put up flyers on the medical campus advertising for an orchestra, 120 people responded. It fell into place quite quickly and easily, and we presented our first concert in early 2001.”

Years later, still the LSO’s “stage mother,” Sims watches the performances with pride. It all pays off: the rehearsing by the members; the preparation by the conductors; the work by Gifts of Art staff to handle the business of running an orchestra; the shoe-leather fundraising and publicity.

“The end product is an amateur orchestra which twice a year mounts the stage with the ease and grace of professionals, and dazzles its sizeable audience with the gift of music,” she says. “At the same time, the LSO helps our members build community, reduce stress, foster creativity and nourish the essence that gives meaning to our lives.”

And that young otolaryngologist who sparked the idea? He’s associate vice president and associate dean for Health Equity and Inclusion David Brown, M.D. Though he’s taking a break from the LSO to focus on his new role, he still practices his flute regularly.

The Harvard-area orchestra that sparked the idea for the LSO only included members of the medical community. But U-M’s innovation — including people from many fields and professions, linked by life science — has now spawned its own imitators. From North Carolina to New Mexico to Texas, LSO-like ensembles have sprung up over the past decade.

Mastering Music Together

For longtime LSO members like Michael DiPietro, M.D., a pediatric radiology faculty member and ultrasound specialist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the orchestra offers a unique opportunity.

“For most LSO members, music is an avocation. We do it because we love it. Had music and fine arts not been available to us in our early education along with all the science, there would now be a hole in our lives,” says the bassoon player.

The fact that the LSO gets to perform in one of America’s finest concert halls, on the same stage where countless professionals have played, adds to the experience. So does sharing that music with an appreciative audience.

Says DiPietro, “Many work colleagues attend our concerts with their families. Some have told me that they had never before attended a symphony concert and quickly became devoted fans of classical music because of the LSO.”

Janke, who serves with DiPietro on the orchestra’s volunteer executive committee, also appreciates how the LSO brings colleagues together as musicians and audience members.

“I never cease to be amazed by the musical talent that exists within the Health System, and in the broader reaches of the life sciences,” she says. “I cannot imagine not playing the violin, and I am so glad I have had the opportunity to keep playing nonprofessionally. It is crucial for me to maintain interests outside of work.”

Muller, the orchestra’s oldest member and resident photographer, says he particularly values the contact with people of all ages. “It is easy for an old geezer like me to become stuck in elder activities; contact with such a diverse age group helps keep me active and optimistic.”

On the other end of the LSO’s age range, but just a few seats away in the violin section, Jenna Devare, M.D., agrees. “The LSO provides me with a wonderful opportunity to continue making beautiful music and to collaborate with U-M physicians, scientists and trainees in a new context, helping to balance my life as an otolaryngology resident,” she says. “I am lucky to be a part of such a multitalented group.”

For more information about the April 24 concert, please visit the Life Science Orchestra’s website.

April in Paris: LSO plays free French-themed concert on April 24

LSOSpring2016flier2Vocal and organ soloists join LSO on works by Puccini, Poulenc and Gershwin

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If you can’t make it to Paris this spring, the U-M Life Sciences Orchestra will offer the next best thing on Sunday, April 24.

And best of all, it’s free.

The LSO, joined by a range of talented soloists, will perform  a French-themed concert that includes the entire first act of Giacomo Puccini’s beloved operaLa Bohème, set in Paris, as well as French composer Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

The concert will begin at 4 p.m. in U-M’s famous Hill Auditorium, is open to all with general admission seating. No tickets are required.

The LSO is made up of dozens of members of the U-M medical and scientific community, and the concert will conclude the orchestra’s 16th season of blending science and music.

Music director Roberto Kalb will give a pre-concert talk at 3:15 p.m. in the lower level of the building to help audience members get the most out of the performance.

Opera for all

For the concert-style performance of La Bohème’s most upbeat act, Kalb will lead the LSO and vocal soloists to evoke the story of Parisian bohemians in the 1830s. In addition to his role with the LSO, Kalb is an experienced opera conductor, both at U-M and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

The lively and witty lyrics, sung in Italian, will be projected in English, making the performance accessible even to those who have never seen an opera.

The vocal talent assembled for the performance includes up-and-coming singers Ann Toomey as Mimi,  Joshua Wheeker as Rodolfo, Zachary Crowle as Marcello, Michael Miller as Schaunard, and Glenn Healy as Colline. Special guest Stephen West, chair of the Department of Voice at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, will sing the part of the bohemians’ landlord Benoit.

The concert’s second half will begin with Poulenc’s moving piece for organ, strings and timpani, composed in the 1930s. Soloist Naki Sung Kripfgans, a prominent organist and winner of the LSO Concerto Competition, will perform on Hill Auditorium’s legendary Frieze Memorial Organ.

The performance will conclude with Gershwin’s Jazz Age masterpiece, a symphonic poem that traces the adventures of an American strolling through the city — and feeling homesick as well. As the composer intended, the percussion section will include a set of authentic Paris taxi horns, which will be played in accordance with new recommendations from U-M musicologist and Gershwin Initiative leader Mark Clague about the notes these horns should play. (Read more here)

The LSO is made up of medical, health and science faculty, staff, students and alumni from across U-M, and is led by Kalb with assistant conductor Jacobsen Woollen.

Roberto Kalb

Roberto Kalb, LSO Music Director

Kalb holds the Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D. Music Director position with the LSO, made possible by a gift from its namesake, the first U-M executive vice president for medical affairs and a longtime supporter of the LSO.

Kalb and Woollen are both graduate students in the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s nationally known orchestral conducting program, from which the LSO has drawn its conductors for its entire 16 years of blending science and music.

The orchestra is part of the Gifts of Art program, which brings the world of art and music to the U-M Health System. The LSO gives members an outlet for their musical talents and a chance to interact with one another across academic disciplines and professions. Founded by students and staff from the U-M Health System, the orchestra made its concert debut in January 2001.

For more information on the concert or the LSO, visit or, send e-mail to, or call (734) 936-ARTS.