By the time we arrive for the Monday morning performance, St. Louis Symphony violinist Hiroko Yoshida has already made her way to the Infusion Room to warm up. Yoshida has performed in the Saint Louis University Cancer Center so often that she feels at home there, both with the patients and the staff. Fellow violinist Silvian Iticovici joins her in the informal space adjacent to the Infusion Room. They take another look at their music, close the door and practice together for a short while.
The Infusion Room consists of a number of large, plush lounge chairs with IV stands and monitors nearby. Patients, some alone, some with companions, sit in the chairs and wait. This is where they come for their cancer treatment. I watch a nurse settle beside a patient and carefully hook the IV to his arm. They chat casually together. “It’s fascinating to watch a good nurse at work,” Crystal Weaver says to me.
Weaver is a music therapist at SLU Cancer Center. She and the Cancer Center have partnered with the St. Louis Symphony and its SymphonyCares program, under the direction of Maureen Byrne, for five years now. It’s been a very close partnership, and Weaver and her colleague Andrew Dwiggins have gotten to know many of the Symphony musicians, their needs and idiosyncracies, their care and commitment. They knew Yoshida would be early and Dwiggins was prepared with chairs and music stands. Over the years, with Weaver giving an orientation for musicians each fall, the Cancer Center concerts have become one of the most popular community programs among STL Symphony musicians.
Dwiggins gives a brief introduction, telling the patients that he hopes the music will make the time pass more easily. One woman gives a thumb’s up as soon as Iticovici and Yoshida begin to play. Some people settle back a little more deeply into their chairs. One woman sits forward in her seat, leaning toward the music to take it all in.
During the duets–Gluck, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Corelli–the work of the hospital never stops. Nurses welcome patients and prepare their IVs. When one patient is done, he mutters “I’d like to hear that more often,” as he heads out the door. Faces that had appeared to be troubled, perplexed, anxious–in a few minutes become relaxed and settle into calm and smiles.
Iticovici and Yoshida end with a familiar lullaby. And then just one more piece. “An encore,” Iticovici grins.