Symphony, Sentara team up for music and medicine program

An important mission of any professional orchestra is an outreach program, one that takes a musical message and experience to the community beyond what is achieved through a regular concert season or programs targeted for children and their families.

To its credit, the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra has a robust outreach program. But, it went a step further in advancing the importance of music with its participation in the lecture-concert event at the Kimball, Friday, offered in collaboration with the Sentara Music and Medical Center and Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center.

"Music and Medicine — the Patient Franz Schubert" featured neurologist Dr. Kamal Chemali, medical director of the Music and Medicine Center, Sentara artist-in-residence pianist Prisca Benoit, and WSO principal flutist Jennifer Lawson in a program illustrating the therapeutic relationship music has on health and disease.

Chemali is a pianist and distinguished physician who, some 12 years ago, started the Doctor-Patient Music Connection Program and the Music and Brain Concert Symposium at the Cleveland Clinic. In 2011, he became affiliated with Sentara Norfolk where he founded and directs the Neuromuscular and Autonomic Center and the Music and Medicine Center. His committed belief in the connective power of music and emotional and physical issues led to these institutional innovations and seminars around the country.

During the Kimball program, Chemali stressed the fact that music can activate all areas of the brain and evoke such feelings as sadness, peacefulness, fear and happiness. Its healing ability has found results in treating dementia and enhancing cognitive processes, even to the point of enabling people nearly incapable of speaking to sing and laugh.

He also noted several times during the lecture music's ability to reduce blood pressure, pain, and anxiety, aspects of which were illustrated in a fascinating survey conducted during the program. Chemali asked those in the nearly full house to use their cell phones to dial into a collective database site. People were then asked to respond via a numbering system how they felt at that moment related to such emotions as degrees of happiness, pain, fear, anger and peace.

Following that, the concert portion of the program began, during which participants were again asked to key in emotional responses to the music as it was being played. At the end of the music, the initial survey was again done and comparative results shown. The graph illustrated significant drops in feelings of negativity or anxiety before the music and increased feelings of calm following. As for reactions to the music performed, the responses indicated a strong connection between musical intent and listener response.

For the musical portion, Benoit, a pianist of considerable international note, played with great delicacy and poignancy Schubert's "Drei Klavierstucke," written six months before his death in 1828. Benoit's delivery easily reflected Schubert's reactions to his impending death, expressing degrees of turbulence, anger and resolution or resignation. Its message was appropriately registered in the audience feedback.

Lawson, also a faculty member of the College of William and Mary, teamed up with Benoit in Schubert's "Arpeggione Sonata," composed in 1824, at the time his illness was diagnosed. As with "Drei" it reflected his emotional state. The Allegro was a blend of bittersweet and jaunty melody, the Adagio somber and meditative lines, and the Allegretto robust and spirited virtuoso-type passages. It was a sparkling performance that allowed us to hear Lawson center stage solo. We enjoy her skilled work within the WSO. Rather than segmental hearing, this was an opportunity to appreciate fully her extensive talents. As with the solo Schubert, the audience's tabulated response matched the music's moods.

Chemali closed the talk by emphasizing again the important role music plays in the emotional and physical health of all people, expressing his dismay that only a handful of hospitals combine music therapy with medicine. He urged more medical schools to expose students to the benefits of music and its usefulness in healing.

Unquestionably, music can and does reach into the inner realms of our beings and touch us in profound, helpful and healthy ways. It can be music in concert, opera, recital, dance or musicals; it really makes no difference. It's allowing the magic of the unspoken in music to speak to you. Thanks to the WSO for taking part in this important event and helping bring an important message to us all.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearnce in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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