September 21, 2022

Princeton University Concerts Launches New “Healing with Music” Series

THE POWER OF MUSIC: Broadcaster and writer Clemency Burton-Hill hosts a new series from Princeton University Concerts about how music aids recovery from illness. The first concert/conversation is September 29 at 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. Returning to the concert hall after the pandemic, planners of Princeton University Concerts (PUC) had that evidence — plus many personal stories — in mind when they created “Healing with Music,” a new series that starts 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 has helped them rally from serious illness and personal upheaval. At the opening session, Burton-Hill will talk about her own recovery, helped by music, from a devastating brain hemorrhage. The surgeon who saved her life will also take part, and violinist Alexi Kenney will perform. Author Maria Popova will also take part in the conversation.

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

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

“That concert helped me through all of that,” she said. “And music has been a lifeline, in many ways, since then. I had another surgery this past winter. As I was recovering and the world was coming out of the pandemic, that relationship to music became all the more vibrant. Joshua Roman came to my hospital room during that time, and played Bach for me. It just took me away. And I’m much better now.”

PUC Director Marna Seltzer, Koltunyuk, and others involved in planning PUC seasons began to think about inviting musicians to share their stories about how music has sustained them, particularly 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’re expected to come onstage and be perfect. We can forget that musicians are human beings dealing with stuff. We wanted to create a space for dialogue, honing in on the fact that music can be a healing force.”

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

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

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

The second and third “conversation/concerts,” as they are called, will start with brief videos in which the artists tell their stories, followed by performance and discussion. Audience members will be able to ask questions. “One thing we hope to do is gather stories of our audience and the way they’ve experienced music in their own lives,” Koltunyuk said.

Future series will touch on 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’re talking 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 audiences navigate that. Yes, they are listening to musicians’ stories. But we’re all in this together.”