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TOPICS : MUSIC : Doctors Play Instrumental Roles


Tuesday night is sacred for a certain group of doctors. No matter how difficult their day, or how many hours they've slept, they head to the Beverly Hills High School auditorium, carrying their black bags, beepers clipped to their waistbands.

Some of their cases are rather odd-shaped for doctors. That's because what's inside is not the standard physician tools of the trade. Most likely it's a violin, flute or oboe.

They are members of the Los Angeles Doctors' Symphony Orchestra--considered one of the largest groups of its kind in the United States.

From the first tap of Dr. Ivan Shulman's baton, the music that comes from this 60-member orchestra is all heart.

For 41 years, the Doctors' Symphony has provided its members fellowship in music and medicine, and an opportunity to help raise funds for charities.

The group's original charter required that three-quarters of its members be doctors, but that requirement has been relaxed.

"Now, anyone who has ever gone to a doctor is welcome to play in the orchestra. We want a viable orchestra. The purpose is to enjoy music and the fraternity and fun of being together," said Shulman, whose father, Harry, was the principal oboist in the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini.

With only two hours of rehearsal a week because of demanding work schedules, it takes a couple of months to prepare a program.

They usually perform four free concerts a year. The orchestra has raised money for research in cancer, AIDS and heart disease, abused children, and sickle-cell anemia. The next concert is scheduled Monday at the Beverly Hills Civic Center.

Dr. Alvin Miller, a pediatrician and neonatology expert--and violinist--is a founder of the orchestra. It has been like therapy to him.

"After you've taken care of sick babies all day, it's cheaper to play in the orchestra than go to a psychiatrist," he said.

Miller has been playing since age 6, and originally wanted to be a musician instead of a doctor--not an easy decision for him.

"I'm Jewish. And what that means (in this context) is that I would either have to be a (premier violinist like) Jascha Heifetz or a doctor. My mother said, 'Go for the music,' but my violin teacher said I'd never make a living (as a violinist) so I went in the other direction," he said.

But anyone who thinks members of this orchestra treat their participation as some sort of hobby need only check the group's repertoire and attend a performance to dispel this assessment.

The Doctors' Symphony has taken its music seriously, ever since its debut concert in 1954, which included the Symphony 11 in D Major by Haydn, to the group's most recent concert where it performed Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73.

And they have traveled all over the world, to boot.

Miller recalled a trip to Greece, where the orchestra played a benefit in the Parthenon to raise funds for a local orphanage.

"What a thrill to play in a 2,000-year-old theater. When you play next to a Greek you don't have to talk. Music is the international language. All the notes are the same," he said.

On a tour to Costa Rica in 1979, two new members of the orchestra who traveled on separate planes and had never met before, found themselves in San Jose making conversation about livers.

She had a doctorate in anthropology, researching Native Americans and alcohol abuse; he was a doctor who specialized in liver treatment.

Joan Weibel-Orlando, a violinist, remembers the moment. "Well, first of all, I knew there was a Dr. Robert Orlando traveling alone in the orchestra because I examined the list. He was the only single man in the orchestra on the trip. But when I saw him, I thought, 'Oh, my God, he's gorgeous. He's so alive, so full of energy.' "

They married two years later, and with their busy lives, they can count on one constant: They have a date every Tuesday night when they meet for rehearsal.

Cheryl and Leroy Brown are also married. They joined the orchestra in 1986 as a couple. Cheryl is the principal flutist.

"I majored in music at USC. My husband does emergency medicine in Bakersfield and plays the viola. I played a lot of chamber music, worked as professional studio musician. But you know how music is, so I went back to school and became a computer programmer," she said.

Brown plays for pleasure. She has two small children, and has started them on the piano. "When my kids walk down the street they sing a Mahler symphony instead of a 'Sesame Street' song," she said.

Conductor Shulman says medicine and music have the same appeal for him. "Until the day I die, I'll still be learning in medicine, still be learning in music."

The orchestra plays Monday at 2 p.m. at the Boat Court in the Beverly Hills Civic Center, Rexford Drive (south of Santa Monica Boulevard). Information: (310) 276-3134 or (213) 934-5317.

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