When he raises his baton, doctors & scientists become musicians

Adrian Slywotzky, the LSO's Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D. Music Director, leads the orchestra's dress rehearsal for the January 2015 concert

Adrian Slywotzky, the LSO’s Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D. Music Director, leads the orchestra’s dress rehearsal for the January 2015 concert

U-M Life Sciences Orchestra conductor holds unique post, now funded by generous gift


Orchestra conductors have heard every excuse in the book from musicians who miss rehearsals.

But this one topped them all: Emergency surgery.

Not having it – performing it.

But not to worry, the member of the U-M Life Sciences Orchestra told conductor Adrian Slywotzky by email. If all went well, and the patient was stable, there should still be time to get to orchestra practice that night.

That’s the kind of thing that can only happen in the LSO, which for 15 years has given members of the U-M medical and science community an outlet for their musical talents.

And Slywotzky wouldn’t have it any other way. He led the orchestra in a free concert last Sunday afternoon, at Ann Arbor’s famous Hill Auditorium.

Together, the band of medical students, graduate students, doctors, dentists, nurses, scientists, hospital staff and engineers played Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony, and a trio of works by American composers.

A band apart

It’s actually not the first time Slywotzky has led an orchestra that blends science and music. He came to U-M from Yale University, where he helped launch the Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra.

Now, as he works toward his doctorate in conducting in U-M’s prestigious program, he leads the LSO’s rehearsals each Sunday night during the academic year, and two concerts a year.

Those rehearsals and concerts give the group of about 70 students and professionals a creative outlet in their hectic week of caring for patients, making discoveries and teaching or learning about health and science.

“One of the things I love about the LSO is that people who have such an important and busy daily life, and professional life, are able to get together to make art together — and to make the best kind of art together,” Slywotzky says. “It’s a real privilege to work with people who don’t have a tremendous amount of spare time, but who choose to use that time to make music together.”

The LSO fits well in the ecosystem of arts that has grown up over the last two decades at the U-M Health System, as part of the Gifts of Art program. In addition to the LSO, Gifts of Art sponsors art exhibits, weekly concerts in the hospital lobby, musicians who travel from hospital room to hospital room, and much more. All of it gives patients and staff a welcome respite from the stress of giving or receiving care.

A medical orchestra movement

In fact, just as UMHS has led the country in programs that bring the arts into the health care environment, the LSO has been at the forefront of a grassroots movement of new orchestras made up of medical and science professionals.

Several have been founded by LSO alumni as their careers take them elsewhere in the country. Others, like the Yale group and the Detroit Medical Orchestra, have sprung up organically.

This form of community-based music-making has deep roots in the history of classical music, says Slywotzky.

After all, most of the great works by Beethoven, Brahms, and others were kept alive over the centuries by orchestras made up of non-professionals, making music together as an avocation.

“Nowadays, for a lot of people, classical music is only something done by professionals on stage for a paying audience as a special event,” he explains. “But for so much of our history a huge part of classical music has been made by people in the community as a way of connecting with each other.”

Only connect

Making those connections across U-M’s huge medical and science community — with its tens of thousands of faculty, staff, students, alumni and retirees – is a hallmark of the LSO.

And indeed, where else can an environmental scientist, a critical-care nurse and a psychiatrist find themselves interacting with a biomedical engineering student, a dental resident and a laboratory technician?

The LSO also breaks down the traditional hierarchies found in medicine and science, says Slywotzky. Distinctions between senior professors and staff, advanced trainees and first-year graduate students melt away as the music begins.

Building those connections, and that sense of community, is what recently motivated one of the LSO’s longtime champions to donate funds to support the conductor’s salary.

With the gift from Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D., the former U-M executive vice president for medical affairs, and his wife Martha Darling, Slywotzky now holds the title of Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D. Music Director.

Says Omenn, “It’s been a tremendous pleasure to see the LSO grow from an idea 16 years ago, to a well-established orchestra in our medical and science community today. We want the LSO to flourish for many years to come. We hope others throughout the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor will join us in supporting it.”

This kind of leadership gift, and many other donations of smaller amounts, keep the LSO running.

Members even pay a modest fee to help with the LSO’s costs. A group of longtime orchestra members volunteers to work with Gifts of Art staff to run the “business side” of the orchestra, and the LSO’s long relationship with the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance means a steady supply of graduate student conductors like Slywotzky.

And for Slywotzky and the LSO’s musicians, all the preparation and work pays off two Sundays a year, when they perform for audiences of hundreds of family, friends, colleagues and community members.

“Part of the joy of what we do is sharing with our audiences pieces that they may know and love, or never heard before,” he says. “It’s an adventure for us – especially when everyone in the group is doing the piece for the first time as we are on this concert. We, and the audience, are all discovering the music together.”




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