By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10, 2008
The bespectacled violinist with wavy brown hair had just come from his lab, where he directs the federal government's research on the human immune system. The bass player used a special tailpiece that he invented to maximize the instrument's sound. The cellist had finished his day's work as a computer programmer, still wearing a short-sleeve dress shirt, digital watch and pocket protector.
But the horn player was absent, because his work took him to Canada. Such are the demands of a top neuro-ophthalmologist, a physician who treats brain diseases affecting nerves in the eye socket.
The men and women rehearsing Beethoven at a Rockville church Tuesday night were members of anything but a typical amateur neighborhood orchestra. They are in the National Institutes of Health Philharmonia, a volunteer chamber orchestra of brainy Washington area folks who can lay claim to some of the scientific world's longest curriculum vitae.
The 59-member group includes some of NIH's sterling scientists and researchers, medical professionals from other institutions and people with other high-level careers. An attaché at the British Embassy played the horn last season before moving back to England.
"A lot of the people who come are MDs or PhDs or both," said Martin Brown, a violinist who runs the National Cancer Institute's health services and economics branch.
"But the funny thing is that when we all get together, we're just musicians," said Mike Stein, the computer-programming cellist, who works at Northrop Grumman.
The nexus between the sciences and music is well established. Mathematical minds are said to best understand music, which is analytical and organic.
Prem Subramanian, who plays horn in the NIH orchestra and works as a neuro-ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins University, likens music to the life sciences.
"You can think of various strings as pulses and processes that are rising and falling," said Subramanian, 40, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who lives in Silver Spring.
Tonight, the orchestra will give its final performance of the season, playing Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 at Saint Elizabeth Catholic Church in Rockville. The concert, which will feature the Washington-based Friday Morning Music Club Chorale and four soloists, is free. Donations will go to NIH charities, such as the Children's Inn at NIH.
The orchestra is among three dozen clubs that NIH sponsors for employees and students. Others are for fans of country western dancing, kenjutsu (the martial art of the samurai sword) and bowling. The clubs are designed to foster a sense of community at NIH, the federal government's primary biomedical and health research agency, which employs about 20,000 people, many at its Bethesda campus. Some of the clubs, such as the orchestra, are open to outsiders.
"As youths, a lot of people pick up skills and interests, and we want people to keep those interests lifelong," said Randy Schools, president of the NIH Recreation and Welfare Association.
Nancia D'Alimonte, the orchestra's conductor, said the NIH musicians range in age from 23 to 73. She said they are unusually dedicated and absorb lessons quickly.
"They're these very intellectual people," she said. "They want to be challenged. It's very awesome. They're quick learners. They're malleable, and they get it in a snap."
During the nearly three-hour rehearsal Tuesday, D'Alimonte challenged her musicians. Speaking in her Italian accent and swinging her arms with passion, D'Alimonte worked to smooth the transitions and build drama leading to the crescendos.
"Come on, release it!" D'Alimonte yelled. Magically, the music came to life.
"It's just kind of a rush to perform with big sound like that," said violinist Amy DeLouise, 44.
DeLouise is a nonprofits consultant, making her one of the orchestra's few nonscientists. But that doesn't mean she's anti-science. She turned to her friend, Richard Siegel, a violinist sitting next to her. As undergraduates at Yale University, they played violin together in the school's orchestra, and DeLouise recruited him to join her in the NIH Philharmonia.
"He's a world-famous scientist," DeLouise said.
"You can look me up," added Siegel, 44.
They were right. Richard M. Siegel, MD, PhD, is one of the country's top immunologists and a tenured faculty member at NIH. He runs a lab that is charged with regulating the human immune system and researching autoimmune diseases.
So how does he find time to practice violin and attend rehearsals, not to mention hang out with his family? Siegel said he squeezes it in.
"Lab work and research is very not nine-to-five," he said. "The cells don't know what time it is, and patients don't know what time it is."
Even Kevin Marvin, the bass-playing pharmacist who invented the tailpiece, makes time for rehearsals -- and he commutes from Burlington, Vt. Marvin travels to Bethesda a few days a week to work as a consultant at NIH, where he is developing a computer system to track pharmacy medications. Playing in the orchestra, he said, helps him meet colleagues and escape the stress of his job.
"It's very physical, and you're basically moving all parts of your body and coordinating it with the music, and it's significantly different than any other kind of work that I do," Marvin said.
For Marcia Tollefson, music is the ultimate escape. She was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago and is a patient at NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Tollefson, 51, had been practicing to sing a mezzo solo at tonight's concert, but she said she dropped out because of health challenges. She might sing next season.
"I have suffered with so many chronic and life-threatening illnesses that I could either sit back and cry or have something that gives me a focus, that gives me a reason to keep putting A to B to C to D," she said. "As long as I keep learning -- and there is so much to learn in music -- I'm living."
Singing in the orchestra is a way for Tollefson to become part of a community at the hospital where she receives care. Since NIH built a security fence around its Bethesda campus a few years ago, nearby residents have felt blocked out.
"With our fence, we feel kind of cut off," Siegel said. "Now we have NIH people outside the fence playing with other people side-by-side, so it's a nice way to break down the barriers within the community."
Not long after the NIH Philharmonia was founded in 2005, D'Alimonte, a doctor of musical arts -- not medicine -- said it struck her that she was leading an unusual orchestra. The group was performing a Haydn symphony, and she paused to tell the audience a story about the composer.
"I said, 'When Haydn was buried, two medical students decapitated and stole his head. They wanted to study the bumps on his head. The head was not returned to the body until over 100 years later. It was lost in some medical cabinet,' " D'Alimonte recalled.
"I turned back and said, 'So that's what you people do at NIH.' "
After the concert, a violinist came up to D'Alimonte and said, "Oh, I'm studying mouse ears for deafness."