At 2.30pm on Sunday 26 May the lights in the Concourse Concert Hall in Chatswood will dim on a hushed enthusiastic audience focusing on an orchestra with a difference. The musicians playing in Musicus Medicus will all be medics.

2024 marks the 21st year of this amazing orchestra. Only now when I think back to picking up the phone in 2004 to Nicolette Fraillon, esteemed conductor of the Australian Ballet Orchestra, asking her to conduct a yet to be founded orchestra in its inaugural concert, do I realise how much nerve I had. I’m grateful she said yes! We were also privileged to have Chopin’s Piano concerto no 1 played by a very young Alexander Gavrylyuk who has since gone on to achieve worldwide fame. This first concert set us off on a wonderful musical journey.

Sitting in the flute section in the early days of the NSW Doctors Orchestra, it would have been very easy for me as a humble general practitioner to feel rather daunted. Next to me was a professor of medicine at the University of Sydney who was teaching and practicing renal medicine at Royal North Shore Hospital and was also Associate Dean and Head of the Clinical School, and an adviser for the World Federation for Medical Education. My fellow flautist was none other than Prof Michael Field, who in his retirement is one of Fine Music’s regular presenters. Hearing his voice on the radio now reminds me of how music can unite us all, breaking down hierarchical barriers.

It has been inspiring to witness the growth and development of the orchestra, and I am thrilled to hand over the Presidency this year to Dr Eric White, a Sydney haematologist and talented clarinetist. Eric refers to his ten years of playing with the orchestra as ‘an amazing ride’. Like many in the orchestra, he enjoys the breaking down of ranks, knowing that young medical students sitting next to professors, and interns sharing desks with heads of departments, are all part of one team connecting over music. Pediatrician Dr Jacky Pollack, a clarinetist with us since our inception, describes feeling absolutely transported during her time in the orchestra, relishing the regular ‘outlet for expression’. For most of our two decades, medical doctor and musical talent David Banney was our conductor, and we are currently enjoying learning from the inimitable conductor Joanna Drimatis.

This year’s concert takes its name The Space between Stars from the opening piece by young Sydney composer Ella Macens. This hauntingly beautiful music formed the sonic backdrop of a Sydney Opera House livestream in 2021 of the calm waters of the eerily empty harbour at sunrise during the pandemic lockdown. Another acclaimed local soloist and composer Daniel Rojas will join the orchestra at the piano for Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango suite, arranged by Daniel for the full orchestra. After Australian and Argentinian music, listeners will then be transported to America with Leonard Bernstein’s spectacular Westside Story Symphonic Dances. The multicultural nature of the program is even further enhanced by a wonderful mix of special songs that will be sung by a children’s choir conducted by Natalie Goonaratne. It will perform a Sri Lankan song The Phoenix, an arrangement of Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water, and First Nations composer James Henry’s Murrgumurrgu (The Ibis) written originally for Sydney Philharmonia choirs.

Our mission also involves philanthropy. The NSW Doctors Orchestra is a registered charity comprised of volunteer doctors and medical students who present an annual charity concert in support of charities in medicine and the arts. The NSW Doctors Orchestra Instrumental Scholarship in the Sydney Eisteddfod is funded each year, supporting virtuosic young musicians. The health care charity this year is the Daniel Ferguson LGMD Foundation, which is committed to enhancing the lives of those confronted by various forms of limb girdle muscular dystrophies, and channelling resources into research into the life-altering incurable genetic disorder. The path of resilience and optimism that this charity cultivates is echoed in the aspirations of both virtuosic young musicians in the Eisteddfod and the medical musicians on stage.

There are several traits that bode well for both working in medicine and playing music. We need to be able to keep calm and function under pressure, be conscientious and disciplined, with a fastidious attention to detail. There is even a tendency towards pedantry and perfection. Doctors don’t like to make mistakes!

Combining music and medicine helps busy students and doctors keep up their instrument practice, encouraging a better work/ life balance. Creative pursuits are welcome opportunities to clear the mind of work. Focusing on music is a great way to settle the emotions after a harrowing day. Due to family and work commitments, not all of our medical musicians are able to take part in each concert. Players on stage represent just a quarter of our membership.

The doctors orchestra movement is pervasive and not limited to NSW. Medical musicians gather to play in most states and territories in Australia. The national Australian Doctors Orchestra has been meeting annually since 1993, and many of us travel interstate each year to take part in that. In 2008 the World Doctors Orchestra (WDO) was founded in Germany, giving our members an opportunity to enjoy being part of this international group of medical musicians. I will never forget playing with WDO in the Mahler’s symphony no 2 Resurrection in Washington in 2011 marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Another emotional experience was playing with it in Japan in 2014 to raise funds to replace musical instruments lost by children in Fukushima in the 2011 tsunami. Later this year WDO will be in Australia for the first time, playing in Melbourne and Sydney.

Our NSW Doctors Orchestra celebrated 20 years in April 2023 with an aptly themed concert Celebration, featuring a new composition by our longtime conductor Dr David Banney. In one section of the piece, he based the waltz melody on the musical notes in my name (Cathy Fraser) in order C-A-F-A-E, composing a motif to be played by me on the flute. I couldn’t imagine a better gift from David after years of productive collaboration. He says that we are sure to continue for many years, enriching the lives of the musicians, delighting audiences, and raising a significant amount of money for a wide range of charities. Bravissimo, Musicus Medicus, bravissimo!

By Cathy Fraser.