Health care professionals have endured relentless stress during the pandemic. To relieve the strain and restore their equilibrium, some of them are returning to a pursuit shared by a surprising number of their medical co-workers: making music together.
The virus has closed the doors to in-person performances, but musician and Evanston resident Taichi Fukumura is involved in a project that offers an alternative. The symphonic music videos by the National Virtual Medical Orchestra represent the first-ever nationwide collaboration of university-based medical orchestras. Founded in the spring of 2020, NVMO is giving medical workers, researchers, doctors, nurses, and medical students around the country a way to enjoy the benefits of their soul-soothing art while they stay safe. John Masco, NVMO founder, has said, “Every rehearsal is a balm for the participants.”
The 20-some orchestras in medical schools scattered around the country – including the three-year-old Northwestern Medical Orchestra – were not connected until last year. Mr. Fukumura, for example, did not realize that two other graduates of the high school he attended were also conducting medical orchestras. But even before the pandemic, the orchestras had begun reaching out to one another. That facilitated their coming together for a COVID-19 project that to date consists of three YouTube videos of symphonic music performed by 70 musicians in disparate locations.
Mr. Fukumura, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in orchestral conducting at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, is under normal circumstances principal conductor and artistic director of the Northwestern Medical Orchestra. He has always been interested, he says, in “building things.” That affinity goes beyond curiosity about how a musical score is constructed to his ultimate goal – building community.
Mr. Masco invited Mr. Fukumura to conduct the third of the NVMO virtual concerts. As a Japanese American who grew up in Newton, Mass., Mr. Fukumura saw the project as an opportunity to showcase a favorite Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi. He says he thinks Mr. Hisaishi deserves to be as well known in the U.S. as John Williams, composer of scores for the likes of “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.” Mr. Fukumura chose to conduct one of Mr. Hisaishi’s movie scores, “Symphonic Variations on ‘Merry Go Round’” from the animated film “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Besides lending itself to a wide range of expression, the piece could take advantage of Internet technology, interspersing video of the musicians with hints of the animated feature for which the piece was written.
Pulling together a cohesive whole from videos of individual musicians was a complex process involving experts from around the U.S. Mr. Fukumura credits the Boston video editor for the “phenomenal” final product. She is a bassoonist with an understanding of “how musicians interact and relate to each other,” Mr. Fukumura says, and shares his enthusiasm for Miyazaki, the director of “Howl’s Castle.” An audio engineer was responsible for mixing the sound. “We worked carefully from Hisaishi’s score, tweaking key elements like balance to make the ensemble work as a whole,” he says.
The music world, he says, “has learned a lot” from the pandemic; he hopes the changes will last. As a conducting fellow with the Chicago Sinfonietta, he is a member of an orchestra that is in the forefront, “developing diverse and emerging musicians.”
Mr. Fukumura says of his work, “Conducting is a collaboration … a give-and-take” in which the conductor “gives the players a vision and then listens for what they do with it.” While fine tuning takes a longer time with a remote performance, the result can be satisfying. “When you hear something is not quite right but manage to find a musical solution, it’s quite rewarding artistically,” he says.
In a time of high anxiety, NVMO has built community for isolated musicians with no musical outlet who are also medical professionals experiencing trauma. “It was such a special experience to collaborate with people from so many different fields all across the country,” Mr. Fukumura says.
You can view a performance by the orchestra below: