Northwestern Medical Orchestra hosts virtual spring concert


Photo courtesy of Bettina Cheung

Feinberg fourth-years Bettina Cheung and Michael Wang. The two pose with the new technology they have set up for this Friday’s concert.

Rebecca Aizin, Senior Staffer

On a cool spring evening in May 2018, the patients of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago gathered on the conference room floor, eager for a night of classical music as the sun set over Lake Michigan.

Performing that night were members of the Northwestern Medical Orchestra, founded in 2018 by Feinberg fourth-years Michael Wang and Bettina Cheung. The orchestra is hosting their Spring Concert on Friday over a live Zoom webinar featuring pieces by Mozart, Piazzolla and more.

After attending Yale University together where they participated in a student-run orchestra, Wang and Cheung founded the orchestra at NU to give fellow medical students and staff a creative outlet to make music.

“We came to Northwestern with the perfect combination of interest, intent and the know-how to put something like this together,” Wang said. “Seeing that there were musicians such as ourselves who would want to participate in something like this inspired us to embark on this journey.”

The most special moment for Wang came when he had the opportunity to perform in front of the patients at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a physical rehabilitation center.

He said he watched the patients close their eyes and tap their feet to the music. In that moment, he knew they were doing something worthwhile.

“It was the proof that there were all these musicians who were going to take two hours out of their busy week to rehearse with us and put on this great thing,” Wang said. “The atmosphere in the room was electric.”

When COVID-19 hit, NMO had to reimagine their rehearsals and performances. Despite some of the musicians working frontline over the course of the pandemic, many stayed dedicated to the orchestra, and the group even added new members over the past year.

Feinberg sixth-year Sophia Li has played the violin since third grade. She said the flexibility of the new rehearsal process allowed more people to join. In recent months, small chamber groups of less than four have been able to rehearse together, masked, while woodwind players have continued to rehearse remotely.

Now more than ever, Li said the medical staff and students have turned to music as an outlet to deal with the stress of their everyday lives.

“The pandemic has made us realize how valuable this opportunity is to make music with other people and be able to share it,” she said. “For all of us, music is something that helps uplift us and keeps us hopeful.”

Friday’s performance will feature vocalists for the first time, in addition to duets, string quartets and some newer music, like tracks from Studio Ghibli.

While the string quartets will be performed live, the woodwind performances will be prerecorded. At NMO’s last Zoom concert in December, some tuned in from Europe and Asia.

“It’s been quite an adventure restructuring this entire program. This group is built on a lot of individuals’ passion for music and willingness to fill in different spots,” Cheung said. “We’ve had to learn how to become livestreamers, so we have learned a lot and are excited to make this possible.”

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Twitter: @rebecca_aizin

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