Met Musicians Fall In at the V.A.

by Jennifer Johnson, music librarian

A weathered military veteran behind a curbside table is selling hats, stickers, and Armed Forces regalia. To fight the autumn chill, he wears an army jacket, its olive green fabric appearing as geometric chunks between Vietnam service ribbons, patches, and other military insignia. With his flowing white beard, he could play Santa’s tougher brother.

“Hey, what you got in there? An AK-47?” he jokes. “Or is that an AR-15?”

It's the first time that Daniel Shelly’s bassoon case has been mistaken for a weapons carrier – or at least with such precision.

“I think it’s a rocket launcher,” chimes in the veteran's equally decorated companion.

It is Monday, October 20, and Shelly is on his way into the Manhattan campus of the Veterans Affairs (V.A.) New York Harbor Healthcare System. Built in 1954, the location treats 17,000 active patients, not only from Manhattan, but from outside New York State, as well. Two years ago, when Hurricane Sandy struck, the hospital was evacuated. The nearby East River, as though itself trying to escape the terrifying storm, poured into the facility, knocking out electrical systems, damaging medical equipment, and causing a stress-filled six-month closure. On this sunny morning, however, almost a year and a half after re-opening, the restored main floor and brick lobby look pristine, even by the sky-high standards of the military. It is here that Shelly will join his MET Orchestra colleagues in one of several volunteer performances today for the veterans.

Event organizer David Langlitz confers with soprano Gizel Rodríguez.

Barbara Jöstlein Currie and Anne Scharer before the brass performance.

It is shortly before noon when two small ensembles – a brass sextet and the soprano and pianist duo of Gizel Rodríguez and Pablo Zinger – cram into a lobby elevator and spill out onto the Acute Inpatient Mental Health Unit on the seventeenth floor. Wasting no time, V.A. Voluntary Service Specialist Isaac Gonzalez escorts Rodríguez and Zinger to a windowed recreational room with an upright piano, on which Zinger immediately begins to noodle. Rodríguez, sporting a colorful tunic over her black gown, intends to sing Latin tunes for the residents, and as Gonzalez leaves to return to the brass sextet, several patients are already peeking into the room with great interest.

On the other end of the hospital wing, the brass players file into a similar space and squeeze themselves into a misshapen arc, their folding chairs backed up against bookshelves, an old piano, and a couple of awkward corners. Patients, alerted by the sounds of the instrumentalists warming up, meander into the room, a few approaching the musicians to ask questions about the upcoming performance.

When the seats have filled, trumpeter Peter Bond introduces his colleagues and acts as emcee, announcing each arrangement with a brief commentary. The three rows of audience applaud between numbers, which range from Baroque to Dixieland. A patient in the back row meticulously writes down the title of every work in pencil on a lined notepad. Another listens with closed eyes and a serene expression, his head nodding gently in time to the rhythms.

Left to right: Barbara Jöstlein Currie, Anne Scharer, Tom Hutchinson, Steve Norrell, Jim Ross, and Peter Bond.

Left to right: Barbara Jöstlein Currie, Anne Scharer, Tom Hutchinson, Steve Norrell, Jim Ross, and Peter Bond.

Out in the hall, trombonist and event organizer David Langlitz watches and waits. This day has been months in the planning, and Langlitz has been at the V.A. since 7:30am, setting up equipment and organizing musicians.

“I always wanted to do this,” says Langlitz. “My dad is a World War II vet. He fought in General Patton’s army in the Intelligence Corps. When I grew up, I heard stories from my dad about being in the war, and I always had a lot of feeling and sympathy for the vets.”

Peter Bond demonstrates his fast tempo conducting prowess to David Langlitz.

Peter Bond demonstrates his fast tempo conducting prowess to David Langlitz.

Four months ago, while serving on the orchestra committee, Langlitz broached the idea of involving Met musicians in community outreach. With serendipitous timing, timpanist Jason Haaheim approached him with a story about an air force veteran he'd met, Dan McCaughan, who had found solace in a Met radio broadcast while stranded in a blizzard on Mt. Rainier.  Langlitz and McCaughan got together, and, guided by Isaac Gonzalez, toured three V.A. facilities in search of the best performance location.

“We spent about seven hours together,” says Langlitz. “Going to Brooklyn, going to Queens, and of course we started out in Manhattan. We looked at the different spaces, trying to see where we would set up and how we would do this.”

“When I toured the different facilities, I was deeply moved,” he adds. “And later in the day, I went home and thought about the service and sacrifice these men and women had made, and how much we owe to them.”

Music has long been known as a form of emotional therapy. In 350 B.C., Aristotle touched on its psychological influence in The Politics, but even then, music’s effect on mental disposition was two-century-old news. Over 2300 years later, CD players in automobiles ease pangs of road rage and the agony of long drives. Country music has become a salve for broken hearts and good people who have been “done wrong”. And music by Queen, piped into sports arenas, pumps up the energy of even losing teams’ fans. When it comes to the brain, music is almost magical; just try to take a photo of the Philadelphia Art Museum without some normally level-headed tourist racing up those 72 stone steps and maniacally dancing around at the top while humming the theme to Rocky. You’ll be there all day.

 Steve Norrell studies his music.

Researchers also have confirmed the positive effect of certain types of music on the rest of the body. Classical music in particular can improve vascular health, ease physical pain, and speed up healing processes after surgeries.

The Manhattan branch of the V.A. facility invites live musical groups to perform for the Acute Inpatient Mental Health Unit once a month, and V.A. music therapist Sarah Stein (MT-BC, LCAT) says that these visits help to stimulate patients’ recovery and buoy spirits.

Billy Hunter plays some long tones.

“Most of the time in our music therapy groups, the patients are actively engaged in music-making and decision-making with regard to music, and are actively working on non-musical goals through music,” explains Stein. “Having a performance, especially from such talented musicians, allows the patients to sit back and enjoy music for music’s sake. It also acts as a normalizing experience and escape from an institutional environment, which can help prepare patients as they get ready to return to the community.”
 
Stein, in the brass sextet audience, later reports, “The veterans were so enamored and enthusiastic about the performance. The patients who attended enjoyed it and were so moved, not only by the quality of the music, but also by the generosity of the musicians who donated their time.”

The small groups wrap up their performances and head back to the main lobby to join their colleagues in a larger orchestral event.  Already, a crowd has gathered – men, mostly, middle-aged and older, sporting military caps and jackets. The musicians warm up, framed by the lobby’s brick support pillars, an American flag, and an origami-festooned blue and yellow sign that reads, “The Price of Freedom is Evident Here.” Violist Vincent Lionti steps up to the podium – he will be conducting today – and turns to the first page of his score.

Concertmistress Nancy Wu and stand partner Toni Glickman warm up before the concert.

Concertmistress Nancy Wu and stand partner Toni Glickman warm up before the concert.

Retired Met violist Ron Carbone returned for the occasion.

Retired Met violist Ron Carbone returned for the occasion.

Organizing an orchestral concert is tricky under any circumstance, and professional orchestras dedicate entire departments to programming, acquiring music, hiring players, and procuring equipment. To put together the V.A. concert, David Langlitz initially took on all of these roles himself. Then he recruited Lionti.

“David Langlitz called me less than a week before, and he said, ‘we’re planning to do this concert at the V.A. Hospital,’ and he wondered if I would collaborate with him,” says Lionti, an experienced conductor. “He wanted me to conduct an orchestra that he didn’t have yet. He had a few players, and he didn’t have any music. He had a few ideas, and he told me about Dan [McCaughan]… and I was very inspired by that story. I thought it was terrific, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll help out in any way I can.’”

Within days, the two men finalized repertoire and filled out the volunteer orchestra roster with Met musicians, family, and friends. By the night before, Langlitz and Lionti had 45 instrumentalists lined up, folders full of music, and transportation arrangements for chairs, stands, and percussion equipment.

But of course there were a few organizational hiccups. “Vince called me at 9:00 the night before and said, ‘I think I need a podium,’” remembers Langlitz, laughing. “Where do I get a podium? So, I went down to C-level [one of the Met’s rehearsal areas], and they had this platform that was on wheels, and I thought, ‘that’s not going to be appropriate.’ We ended up getting it at Carroll Music.”

 

The concert begins. The program is a mix of overtures, opera arias sung by Gizel Rodríguez and Luis Chapa, and, of course, military marches – and as the orchestra plays, more and more passers-by stop to listen. It’s lunchtime, and people linger. One white-haired visitor works on a personal-sized pizza, gripping the small cardboard box in his left hand while conducting to the music with his right. Another parks himself on a bench at the side of the lobby, shooing away stray audience members who dare to block his view. Veterans and hospital workers hold their camera phones up high, taking photos and recording; as they search for unobstructed camera angles, their small, lit-up screens sway back and forth above the crowd like lighters at a rock concert.

During a break between pieces, Lionti introduces two members of the orchestra who are also military veterans: his father, violinist Victor Lionti, and Met clarinetist Jim Ognibene, both of whom performed with “The President’s Own” Marine Band early in their careers. The orchestra launches into Lowden’s Armed Forces Salute medley, and veterans in the audience stand for recognition when they hear their military branch’s particular hymn.

For Ognibene, the marches bring him back to his service from 1971-1975, during the Vietnam War. When asked about his military career, however, Ognibene makes certain to differentiate between his experience in “The President’s Own” and that of many of the audience members who had been injured in combat. “I was just very lucky,” he says later, during an intermission at the Met. “I got into this band. I was able to do my military service during that time, and I was safe from overseas deployment and combat.” And yet, he adds, “We were still in that [military] environment. I was in that environment for four years. So, it did bring back memories. We played the service medley in the Marine Band so many times, and there was always an emotional reaction to those tunes. And I saw that reaction again when we played for the vets.”

After almost an hour, the orchestra heads into its finale – The Stars and Stripes Forever. A trio of nurses in baby blue scrubs emerges from a pair of doors behind the piano and joins in the photo taking. “How about some Garryowens?” shouts a man wearing a mud-colored jacket and a faded “ARMY” cap. He is referring to the Irish air often used as a British and American marching tune. As he taps his cane to the piccolo solo he adds, “They probably don’t know what that means.”

The concert ends, and Vincent Lionti steps off the podium, only to be swarmed by veterans expressing their thanks for the performance. Around him, orchestra members pack up their instruments amid the hubbub and can be heard in turn thanking the veterans for their service.

Vincent Lionti leads his colleagues in an excerpt from Bellini's Norma.

Vincent Lionti leads his colleagues in an excerpt from Bellini's Norma.

David Langlitz later says, “I felt that there was real communication between the audience, the vets, and the musicians who were performing.” During the concert, Langlitz spoke with a World War II army veteran who described the presence of the orchestra in the lobby as a blessing. “He said that [the music] had soul to it,” Langlitz recalls. “And he could see it affecting people… and when this gentlemen was talking to me about how [the music] was having such a profound effect on the spirit of the people who were there, the orchestra was playing this armed forces medley, and I looked out and I saw some of the vets had tears in their eyes.”

Already one month out, several musicians say that because of the impact the concert had on audience and performers alike, the event at the V.A. ranks as one of the most meaningful of their careers. Lionti says, “We were all just very surprised and happy at the warm reception we got, but in a way, it’s not surprising, because it was a beautiful concert – and it was really a fantastic experience for everybody.”