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Princeton University Concerts Launches New “Healing with Music” Series


THE POWER OF MUSIC: Presenter and writer Clemency Burton-Hill hosts a new series of concerts from Princeton University about how music helps recover from illness. The first concert/conversation will take place on September 29 at the Richardson Auditorium. (Photo by Matthew Septimus)

By Anne Levin

There is scientific evidence that music can have a profound effect on physical and mental healing. Back in the concert hall after the pandemic, planners at Princeton University Concerts (PUC) had that evidence — along with many personal stories — in mind when they created “Healing with Music,” a new series that will begins Thursday, September 29 with an event at Richardson Auditorium.

The multi-year project hosted by writer and broadcaster Clemency Burton-Hill will spotlight musicians who will share their stories of how music helped them pull themselves together after serious illness and personal upheaval. In the opening session, Burton-Hill will talk about her own music-assisted recovery from a devastating brain hemorrhage. The surgeon who saved his life will also be there, and violinist Alexi Kenney will perform. Author Maria Popova is the moderator.

On November 9, cellist Joshua Roman will perform a concert and discuss the role of music in his recovery from long COVID. On February 9, pianist Fred Hersch takes center stage, talking about the role music played in his recovery from months in an AIDS-related coma.

“I think everyone has this story of how music served as a source of healing for them,” said Dasha Koltunyuk, outreach manager at PUC and a pianist herself. Suffering from bone cancer at 14, just before she was supposed to perform a Beethoven concerto at the Manhattan School of Music, Koltunyuk has a personal connection to the subject.

“This gig helped me get through it all,” she said. “And music has been a lifeline, in many ways, since then. I had another operation last winter. As I recovered and the world emerged from the pandemic, this relationship to music became all the more dynamic. Joshua Roman came to my hospital room around this time and played me some Bach. It just took me away. And I’m much better now.

PUC manager Marna Seltzer, Koltunyuk and others involved in planning PUC seasons started thinking about inviting musicians to share their stories of how music has supported them, especially during the pandemic. “We wanted to give these musicians a platform to talk about this topic, which in the music industry can be taboo,” Koltunyuk said. “You are expected to come on stage and be perfect. We can forget that musicians are human beings who deal with stuff. We wanted to create a space for dialogue, focusing on how music can be a healing force.

Once the word got out, the response became “a bit overwhelming,” Koltunyuk continued. “Everyone has been through something.”

Roman played with PUC last season. “For the people who got to hear it, it will be a very special experience,” Koltunyuk said. “I’m not sure people realize he’s been dealing with long COVID, so we loved the idea of ​​bringing him back to tell that story. He’s someone who could run for six minutes before getting sick. At one point he could barely sit with the cello for a few minutes at a time. He was just making sounds, playing open strings – and this process was a release for him. He built it little by little and it is much better now.

The opening event is meant as something of an introduction to the series and the host, Burton-Hill. “She’s a phenomenal woman who has dedicated her life to making music accessible to everyone,” said Koltunyuk. “She had a massive brain hemorrhage and has been recovering ever since. Music played a vital role in this.

The second and third “conversations/concerts”, as they are called, will begin with short videos in which the artists tell their stories, followed by a performance and a discussion. Members of the public will be able to ask questions. “One thing we hope to do is collect stories from our audience and how they have experienced music with music in their own lives,” Koltunyuk said.

Future series will cover several topics. “This is a multi-year project, and we want to explore mental health, political healing, racial healing — the possibilities are endless,” she said. “We talk about human nature and what it means to be alive when we have music in our lives. We could have planned this series at any time. But coming back from the pandemic, we really want to help the public navigate it. Yes, they listen to the stories of the musicians. But we are all in the same boat.

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