L'Ensemble Medicale at Carnegie HallLMU ensemble plays Carnegie Hall
by Elizabeth Willoughby

What happens when you combine medical study, classical music and charity? LMU got L’Ensemble Médical, a choir and orchestra raising money for groups such as Doctors Without Borders. Not yet two years old, February saw them perform at Carnegie Hall.

The musicians enter the stage in single files from both sides and take their seats. Then the choir streams in – over 100 men and women fill up the back stage in five ascending rows, sopranos to the left, basses to the right. The soloists enter, nod and are seated, and then the conductor takes her position at the center.  She raises her arms, facing the ensemble. The hall falls silent. Her hands, still raised, connect with each pair of eyes. Then in one sudden swoop, a mighty chorus of angels and strings leap into Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor.

A Medical Faculty ensemble is born

L’Ensemble Médical, a choir and orchestra made up mostly of LMU and TUM medical students, professors and doctors, was founded by Gundi Gabrielle, a German American conductor with extensive experience throughout Europe, the US and South America. Unwilling to put aside music for the duration of her studies, Gabrielle put the group together in the spring of 2009, shortly after she was accepted into LMU’s medical program.

The response to L’Ensemble was overwhelming. It rapidly grew into a company of nearly 200 members, and its track record speaks for itself – its six national and two to three international performances each year usually play to sold-out venues. “If the standards of the orchestra weren’t so high,” says violinist Katharina Fröhlich, L’Ensemble Médical’s concert master, “it wouldn’t be worth the drive to Munich for me.” A 2010 graduate from FAU Erlangen, she has just started an anesthesiology internship. “I hope I will continue playing with this orchestra even while working as a doctor.”

“There are many amateur ensembles,” explains Gabrielle, “but few of really high standards. Plus, our concert venues and especially tours are absolutely unique, particularly for an ensemble this young.” Unique indeed. Following performances in places such as Strasbourg Cathedral and Paris Eglise Saint-Eustache, last month the choir and orchestra gave its Carnegie Hall debut. It’s the first German university ensemble ever to perform at the prestigious location.

Profound ties between medicine and music

Besides the composition of the group, L’Ensemble Médical has another fundamental link to medicine. Part of the ticket proceeds from its performances are donated to charitable medical organizations. The New York and Washington, DC legs of the recent tour were dedicated to Doctors Without Borders in Haiti, one year after its devastating earthquake, and the Boston concert proceeds to Partners in Health, in Haiti as well.

But the music in medicine theme plays an even larger role for L’Ensemble Médical. As part of the US tour, they participated in the Music in Medicine symposium in collaboration with Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. The program included lectures on applications of music in medicine, the science of music in medicine, musical genius and psychiatric illness, and the music in medicine program at Cornell in collaboration with the Juilliard School for performing arts.

Eager to meet up with his scientist contacts in the US, the only LMU medical professor on the tour, violinist Dr Wolfgang Siess, has no doubts about the medicine and music connection phenomenon. The neurological healing effects of music are of growing interest in science. “As we see in music therapy, the art of music and medical science are a good match,” says Patrick Peschke, a chorus bass in the ensemble and in his 5th semester in LMU’s medical program.

For this group, the connections are undeniable. As for L’Ensemble Médical’s future, it’s hard to imagine what they should aspire to beyond the standing ovations they received at every performance and the praises of The New York Times’ classical music editor – unless it’s to perform for the Pope, which they will do in October.

Originally published at insightLMU, March 2011

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