An astrophysicist, a chief NIH researcher and an FDIC lawyer walk into a church – it might sound like the makings of a joke taking a dig at Washington, DC's power elite. But, in reality, these accomplished area residents are coming together to do something good for their communities, just as others like them have been doing for more than 50 years.
They are members of the National Institutes of Health Community Orchestra, which under the direction of Dan Walshaw, boasts more than 70 volunteer musicians, made up of high school students, educators, employees of government agencies and community members from across Montgomery County.
The group is the most recent of four NIH orchestras that have popped up over the years for the intention of providing a relaxed musical outlet for the community, and to do a little charity work on the side.
“Our president Harold Seifried likes to say that we are therapy rather than a reason for therapy. It’s a very comfortable place to come play,” Walshaw said. “It’s a neat coming together of all musical minds and talents.”
NIH researchers, NASA scientists, Department of Justice employees, and members of the Army, Navy and Air Force warm up their cellos, violins, flutes and clarinets for Wednesday night practices at the Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville. The group was founded in 1996 by Georgetown Prep music instructor Gary Daum and had practiced on the NIH campus in Bethesda, until the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks forced the federal campus to beef up security.
The orchestra’s talent spans a range of abilities, from new musicians to 20+ year veterans. For Washington-area workaholics, the ensemble provides an outlet for stress relief, musical passion and camaraderie.
“The ethos of this group is really unique. You don’t get the kind of fighting or competition for rising up that other ensembles get. It’s a special thing and I try to nurture that as much as I can,” said Walshaw, who works as a music curator with the Library of Congress.
“All these people have busy, busy lives and they don’t need something else stressful on top of that. Especially in this city where people seem to work a minimum of 50 to 60 hours a week, they want to come play music as a release.”
When Katheryn von Rautenfeld, a violist from Takoma Park, was looking for a community orchestra to join, the NIH ensemble was the first she found, and she’s stuck with it for six years.
“Making music with other people is way more fun than playing by yourself – getting the best out of everybody and coordinating and having something nice come of it," von Rautenfeld said.
Tom Holzman, a Bethesda lawyer with the FDIC, joined the group in 1999 playing violin and has stuck with it for almost 14 years because of the people and relationships he’s been able to form.
“It’s a fun group,” he said. “When you get older you don’t necessarily get to interact with people who are younger. It’s good to be with young, energetic people interested in music.”
The cross-age, cross-vocational element of the group has allowed unlikely friendships to blossom over the years.
In addition to the larger group, smaller chamber ensembles have formed, including a string quartet, a flute ensemble and a brass group. The groups get together to perform smaller free concerts throughout the year at libraries, nursing homes and other community hubs.
Harold Seifried, orchestra president and NIH chief of nutrition research in cancer prevention, plays French horn with the orchestra and sings in the separate NIH chorus. He will join one of these smaller groups for a planned performance at Baltimore-Washington International airport this season, as a treat for holiday travelers.
According to Seifried, the many NIH ensembles have donated nearly $25,000 to the NIH charities through donation-only concerts.
This Sunday, the full orchestra, along with the 40-member NIH Community Chorus under the direction of Bob Johnson, will perform its annual holiday concert, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” featuring a sing-along chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
The free show begins at 3 p.m. at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda. Donations are encouraged and will benefit NIH charities including the Children’s Inn.
For more information about the orchestra and Sunday’s performance, check out the NIH Community Orchestra website here.