This year’s first Arts & Resilience Program, a series of events designed to link the arts and humanities with medicine, at McGovern Medical School saw the return of pianist Mark Vogel to campus Thursday afternoon.
Vogel, a music director, performer, and conductor, currently serves as the choir director at the Unitarian Universalist Church and music director at Congregation Beth Israel. Vogel explored the life and death of some of the world’s most respected pianists, as he connected the world of medicine with that of music through an exploration of misdiagnoses and second guessing.
“Like music, I think medicine is truly an art form,” Vogel said. “Health as a profession often involves improvising and interpretation not unlike musicians.”
Vogel spoke about the unfortunate early deaths of artists like Frédéric Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. He briefly touched upon the final years of each artist, shedding light on certain myths and legends that still pervade in modern times while offering insight into how medical professionals approached treatment and diagnoses centuries ago. He jokingly said his presentation was “like a piano recital, only with a lot more blood and guts and syphilis.”
He bridged each figure’s background with a performance of their respective music, and talked about the many health challenges of the 1800s like tuberculosis, rubella, scarlet fever, and the flawed, and in some cases fatal, treatment for diseases like large doses of mercury and other compounds. Vogel also shared some of his own background with surgery, first on his left hand in 1992, and again on his right hand in 1996.
“When you think about a pianist having hand surgery, the mind might go to some sort of repetitive strain surgery,” Vogel said. “In fact, in both cases I had ganglion cysts.”
For most people, such cysts often go away on their own but it was a significant disruption to Vogel’s career as he had issues with using his hands during the recovery.
“It was a very simple surgery, but as a pianist I was terrified,” he said.
To make matters worse, Vogel had no way to complete a concerto requirement while in school following the surgery on his right hand, but with a little bit of research he discovered the story and piano concerto composed by Maurice Ravel and commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I, when he was shot and captured by Russian forces. He nonetheless pursued his career as a pianist and commissioned “Piano Concerto for the left hand in D major.” Vogel practiced, performed the piece, and passed his requirement. He again performed it for Thursday’s audience.
Vogel said he was glad to return to the Arts & Resilience series at McGovern Medical School and considered it a way to broaden to expand his own boundaries.
“I’m always grateful to participate in the Arts & Resilience series here,” he said. “As a pianist and a musician, I often just think about the music I’m learning, and this allowed me to dive deeper in to the lives and health history of the composers I spend so much time with. It gives me a new perspective on the actual music I’m performing.”
The next event in the Arts & Resilience Program will be held at noon, Thursday Oct. 11 in MSB 3.001. It will feature Houston-based accordionist Roberto Rodriguez and Dr. Roger Wood, music historian and author, as they again talk about the origins and evolution of the accordion. The program is sponsored by the Dean’s Office in collaboration with the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics. For more information and a schedule, visit the program’s website here.