Harpsichordist Leslie Kwan’s most fulfilling experience as a musician didn’t happen in a concert hall. It took place in the Patty Ribakoff Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Mass. General, where her nonprofit baroque chamber orchestra, L’Académie, began playing intimate concerts late last year. Their audience: 18 tiny newborns and their worried parents.
“Each child has a monitor next to them, and each monitor has a central artery in the nurses’ station,” Kwan explains. “And while we were performing for that hour, none of the alarms went off. Not one. It was miraculous. They said it has never happened. It still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.”
L’Académie’s general director has always believed in the healing properties of music. But back in 2003, when her own mother was diagnosed with stage-three non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Kwan felt helpless. “I thought it would be really great if I could bring music to her,” Kwan recalls. “But the only way I could do that was loading tracks on her iPod. She was in an in-patient facility and was in the hospital for weeks at a time.”
The idea of combining music and medicine coalesced a few years later, when she met a couple with connections at Dana-Farber while playing a private house concert. L’Académie had been conceived as simply an outlet for Kwan and her friends to play the music they loved, but soon, small groups of L’Académie musicians, ranging from soloists to quintets, started performing at the hospital. Kwan says the impact was immediate and profound.
“There was a little girl, I think she might have been 18 months old, that sat there with the biggest smile on her face, but she had a little banner there on her wrist that was there for her cancer treatment,” she remembers. “That really changed the tone for me. We weren’t just doing orchestral concerts; we were providing peace and beauty to people at a really difficult time.”
As word of L’Académie’s mission spread, it caught the interest of a number of donors and partners, including NICU namesake Patty Ribakoff, co-chair of Mass. General’s philanthropy program. “When someone wants to do something that’s so powerful and so meaningful and so impactful, it spoke to me,” Ribakoff says.
L’Académie has begun tapering down their Dana-Farber concerts to focus on a partnership with MGH, where they plan to play one or two performances a month, which will be taped so patients can enjoy them in their rooms through the hospital’s closed-circuit TV station. They want the series to “have legs beyond the actual 14 hours of programming,” Ribakoff explains.
Kwan, whose mother is currently in remission, tears up a bit when she talks about her work. “One of the couples [in the NICU] came up to me and said, ‘I’m at a loss for words as to what to say to you. This was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.’ So it’s hard not to get emotional,” she says. “I’ve performed all over the world, but this, for me, has been the most meaningful and powerful way of expressing what I’ve been gifted with.”
Local musicians aren’t the only Bostonians giving back to sick kids. Boston Children’s Hospital, which has been bringing in guest chefs for nearly a decade, opened Chef’s Playground in its food court late last month, giving local toques such as Rachel Klein, Brian Poe and Ming Tsai a place to entertain, educate and cook for children. There’s usually one chef booked for a few hours each month, but Children’s Hospital senior director Shawn Goldrick is considering making the demos more frequent to accommodate the chefs clamoring to lend a hand. “The chefs always end up extending their stay,” Goldrick says. “We had Tiffani Faison in here once for six hours making s’mores with the kids and teaching them how to make their own Fluff.” / Matt Martinelli