The Chancellor’s Concert Series: UCSF’s best-kept secret

Thursday, November 1, 2012

One area of adjustment for me during the start of medical school was cutting back on my indulgence in music and art. After several months of learning to paint, sing, dance, write and refining my piano playing, I had to tone down my activities significantly once medical school started. One of the reasons I had been exploring different artistic areas was to see which non-academic related activity I enjoyed the most and could use as a stress-reliever once medical school started.

During my first three weeks at UCSF, I touched a piano only once and hardly sang a note (probably a good thing for my roommates). By the time our first exam rolled around, I felt a build-up of unreleased energy. Something was definitely missing in my life.

Then, one September day, I walked past Cole Hall, UCSF’s very own Room of Requirement (see Harry Potter). Cole Hall also has many guises, and functions however need be, as lecture hall, theatrical stage, “emergency room,” concert hall and exam room. On that afternoon, I happened upon an installment of the Chancellor’s Concert Series, a free program that brings faculty from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Symphony right to Parnassus Heights. 

A chamber ensemble consisting of a cellist, pianist and flautist was performing. The combination of seeing three people with an unabashed passion for their work, the penetrating sound of the cello, and the feeling that I had just caught the first glimpse of someone I love emerging from the crowd brought tears to my eyes.

After that performance, I thanked the performers and met the pianist, who happened to be a retired doctor. It was also very encouraging to talk to the directors of the Chancellor Concert Series, who are current physicians and musicians/music lovers here at UCSF. From then on, I was hooked. This eclectic bunch of classical music lovers and I will for sure be at the next show.

The next performance was held a day before we first-year medical students took our Prologue final, and although it was tempting to stay at home and study on that rainy day, I definitely did not want to miss a live professional performance of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor. Again, the performance was awe-inspiring.

The lunchtime event started off with Dr. David Watts, the UCSF gastroenterologist, writer and commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” reading a love poem by Kenneth Patchen. Then the pianist, Danny Glover, took the stage and not only performed the piece but educated the audience about the major themes of the music.

Sonata No. 3 in B minor is considered one of Chopin’s greatest masterpieces, because it is more contrapuntal and complex than his more popular early works. It was written within the last five years of Chopin’s life and represented a new direction for the composer. Glover gave us an overview of the piece, noting that the first movement is overflowing with material, expressing Chopin’s great wealth of musical ideas. The second movement is short and bright, reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s music, while the third movement, the highlight of the piece, represents a great meditation, where the composer draws us into his own world. The finale is a finger-buster even for a professional.

As an encore, Mr. Glover performed “Poet,” by Serge Bortkiewicz, which has a complex score written entirely for the left hand. If I had not been there watching, I would never have believed that the performer was using only his left hand to create the beautiful and mysterious lines of the music.

The Chancellor’s Concert Series is one of UCSF’s best-kept secrets, a fantastic opportunity for students, faculty and staff alike. It always inspires me, rejuvenates my senses and provides me with the most wonderful break from study. I’m sure you will all be relieved to learn that I’m doing much better now and play the piano weekly, my non-academic/fitness/writing activity of choice. I hope you will join me at the next concerts on November 1 (piano and flute), November 15 (piano), and December 6 (string quartet) from noon to 12:45 p.m. in Cole Hall.