Playing Harborview in June: the World Doctors Orchestra

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Playing Harborview in June: the World Doctors Orchestra

Physician-musicians' West Coast premiere includes Seattle, Vancouver
Brian Donohue

In June, doctors from around the world will gather in Seattle for no good medical reason. Instead, they’ll pull on tuxedos and gowns and show off their classical-music chops at Benaroya Hall and, of all places, Harborview Medical Center’s cafeteria.

Meet the World Doctors Orchestra – hundreds of well-educated, intensely focused, ultra-confident individuals who, before the first note is struck at rehearsal, will be as giddy as first-graders racing to recess. 

Information about the orchestra dates in Seattle and Vancouver

“We’re all jazzed to perform the music. There’s no talk of medicine when we’re together,” said David Frank. He’s a longtime emergency-medicine specialist at Virginia Mason who keeps his embouchure primed as second-chair clarinet in the Northwest Symphony Orchestra. 

Responding to an ad in a medical journal, Frank in 2008 became a founding member of the World Doctors Orchestra, whose mission is to raise money for human-service charities.

“One of our tenets is that healthcare is a basic human right,” he said. In Seattle they’ll play for the Seattle TimesFund for the Needy, which supports 12 nonprofits.

Subsets of the group, now about 800 members strong, put on two or three concert events a year. Germany, China and Chile, among other nations, have welcomed the players.

In 2013, Frank asked physician-conductor Stefan Willich to consider Seattle as a venue. So it came to be that, a few months from now, 101 far-flung physicians will collect room keys at downtown Seattle hotels, practice three afternoons at the Plymouth Congregational Church, and perform two concerts here and one at the Chan Centre in Vancouver, BC.

(The players chosen for each tour travel on their own dimes. In addition to covering airfare, room and board, each must pay the orchestra about $350 to defray costs like Benaroya’s $15,000 rental fee.)

The orchestra tries to include a medical center on every tour to play for patients, families and staff, Frank said. 

Courtesy of David Frank
Dr. David Frank, ready to play his clarinet with the orchestra in Berlin in 2012.
picture of Dr. David Frank holding his clarinet backstage in Berlin in 2012

At Harborview, the idea of a concert in View Park, on Harborview’s west side, held allure, but the possibility of afternoon breezes lifting sheet music into the sky over Interstate 5 led quickly to the next best option: the centrally located cafeteria.

Its atrium ceiling “makes it a very open, very public space,” said Peggy Weiss, who manages the hospital’s substantial art collection. “You’ll probably be able to hear the orchestra almost anywhere on campus.”

There’s a small stage at one end that, fortuitously, already is home to a piano but the symphony’s size will require musicians to occupy that and about half of the main room.

“It will be really packed in there and I expect a real booming sound,” Frank said.

Playing that piano will be Al Berg, a retired UW family-medicine professor whom Frank recruited when Seattle got the nod.

Berg grew up in Kansas, and seeing the symphony in Wichita for the first time was a transformative experience, he said. He took piano lessons through high school and college.

"I thought I'd lose interest when I entered medicine, but actually music got more and more important. I think it got me through medical school and residency." 

Brian Donohue
Pianist and retired physician Al Berg, at his grand piano, delights in the prospect of playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, the centerpiece of the concert.
picture of Al Berg at his grand piano

Having a piano part in an orchestra performance is quite unusual, Berg said. “There are no pianos with Beethoven’s symphonies or Brahms; it’s sort of a contemporary thing.” 

Successfully nominating Seattle as a site also won Frank the job of project manager; careful what you wish for, he laughs. It’s a big job: selecting the charitable org; arranging venues; renting, insuring and transporting instruments, which in this case will involve Amtrak, trucks and a customs broker for border-crossing.

He’s prospected for deals with hotels but learned that it’s a busy time, so pricing will be “aggressive,” in hospitality-industry parlance.

No matter. Frank and the other symphony players will be buzzing with anticipation between now and the maestro’s tap-tap-tap.

“The intense joy is the very first note of rehearsal,” he said. “Everyone’s been practicing their part at home for months, wondering how it’s going to sound, and then the conductor gives you that downbeat. It’s glorious to be in the middle of that.”

Tickets ($25, $50, $75) are on sale for the Benaroya Hall performance.