The Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra supports an unexpected creative connection

By Brian Marks

Conductor Ivan Shulman, a surgeon, believes “the creative expression of making music is congruent with being a physician — schedule notwithstanding.”
Photo by Myles Lee / Myles Lee Photography

It’s Tuesday night rehearsal, and one of the first violins is in pain. His back is killing him, to the point that he has to take long breaks during the rehearsal to let his aching muscles relax. Seeing a grimace of discomfort on his face, the conductor asks: “Is there a doctor in the house?”

What might have been a serious question in another context receives a few chuckles and sheepish grins — after all, this is a rehearsal for the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra. The conductor,
Ivan Shulman, is a surgeon himself, and there are multiple doctors and nurses in the group.

It’s not unheard of for a community orchestra to be organized around a specific profession, but there is something almost antithetical about a symphony composed of doctors. It’s easy to think of them as hyper-rational individuals who spend their time focusing on ailments and carefully calibrated treatments. And the hectic schedules of doctors don’t seem like they would leave much room for practice, rehearsals and performances.

Yet medicine and music may have a special connection.

“I think there must be something in our brain or in our nature in which those two fields merge,” says Shulman. “I think there’s a tradition of making music, and somehow the creative expression of making music is congruent with being a physician — schedule notwithstanding.”

Playing music can also be therapeutic and relaxing, a temporary respite from the demands of medicine.

“It’s actually a nice little reprieve from work — it takes my mind off things,” says Jennifer Chen, an OB/GYN and cellist in her first season with the Doctors Symphony. “It’s very low stress to come here, everyone is friendly, and it’s not like a competition. I love it.”

Founded in 1953, the orchestra was originally exclusive to doctors, nurses, dentists, veterinarians and other health care professionals. Now it is a true community orchestra in which anyone can perform, regardless of profession. As Shulman puts it, “Today, the only qualification for membership is if you’ve ever been to a doctor.” The orchestra still features a number of players from medical fields, though their ranks have thinned over time relative to its growth.

Now some of the longtime players are introducing their children to the orchestra. Jerome Greenberg, a doctor of internal medicine with UCLA Health, plays violin with daughter Ilana Greenberg, who is planning to earn a master’s in public health. Being in an orchestra takes Ilana back to her high school days, when playing music was a way to find friends from all different walks of life. Her father has a more jaundiced opinion. “I view it as a way to maybe delay the onset of dementia by keeping my brain active,” he says with a wry smile.

Shulman, now in his 25th season as music director, has led a life that alternated between his twin passions for medicine and classical music. He ran a successful practice as a general surgeon and served as an assistant professor of surgery at USC. After stepping back from his practice, he worked on surgical missions across the globe. As an oboist he has played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under some of the titans of classical music, conductors including Michael Tilson Thomas, Zubin Mehta and Erich Leinsdorf — all while pulling double duty as tour physician.

The orchestra’s next concert is on Sunday in Santa Monica and features two showcases for piano soloists by Dmitri Kabalevsky and Robert Schumann. Kabalevsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D major” (subtitled “Youth”) is the more forgiving and inviting of the two pieces — the composer wrote it at a difficulty level approachable for young performers.

The soloists have been selected from winners of the Westside Music Foundation’s Feb. 4 Robert Turner Piano Concerto Competition, in which students 14 and younger competed to perform individual movements of the Kabalevsky concerto. Audrey Yang of Pacific Palisades is performing the first movement, and Reina Hewes of Beverly Hills the second and third.

Kabalevsky’s concerto for students is energetic and tuneful, yet constantly at war between angular music reminiscent of Prokofiev or Shostakovich and unabashedly romantic melodies in the vein of Tchaikovsky.

Also on the program is Schumann’s “Piano Concerto in A minor.” Despite his identification with the piano, Schumann wrote only one concerto for the instrument during his lifetime. He eschewed the virtuosic style in vogue during the mid-1800s, instead crafting a concerto that allows the orchestra to shine alongside the piano. The solo part it to be performed by Judy Huang, who has given concerts in the U.S., Europe and Taiwan.

Opening the concert will be Franz Schubert’s “Symphony No. 5 in B flat major.” The symphony is scored for a relatively small orchestra and often mimics the style of Mozart.

Though much of the music on Sunday’s program is light and brimming with joy, Shulman is careful to stress how seriously the orchestra approaches its performances.

“It’s not about doctors,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s just doctors having fun.’ It’s not — people take it very seriously, and the issue of being a physician disappears when you’re playing music. It’s about the music. Egos go away.”

The Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra performs at 4 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 25) at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, 1343 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. Open seating; $10 suggested donation. Visit