UN Chamber Music Society, New York Philharmonic hold concert supporting music therapy for cancer patients

The UN Chamber Music Society of the United Nations Staff Recreation Council will play at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday. 
The UN Chamber Music Society of the United Nations Staff Recreation Council will play at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday.  Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

After concerts for the benefit of Rohingya refugees and Yemen in 2018, the UN Chamber Music Society of the United Nations Staff Recreation Council (UNCMS) kicks off 2019 with a concert for the Helen Sawaya Fund on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, where they will be joined by a handful of musicians from the New York Philharmonic.

Based at Mount Sinai West Hospital, the Helen Sawaya Fund is a philanthropy program that provides music therapy and other complementary treatments for cancer patients.

UNCMS’ artistic director Brenda Vongova said the music group was founded three years ago to “raise awareness of UN goals through music.”

As a concert pianist herself, Vongova said she has always believed in music therapy, but not everyone does.

“A lot of people think music therapy is…they don’t take it seriously,” Vongova said. “So when I saw how Mount Sinai integrated music therapy into their whole healing approach…I wanted very much to support the work they do.”

For cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, the biggest benefit from music therapy is pain management. At its most basic level — and to an admittedly trivial degree — the theory should be familiar to anyone who puts in earbuds when they run or go to workout. Whether it’s Jock Jams or country hits, the music eases the aches of exercising.

The same relief comes, hopefully, for patients enduring more consequential and debilitating pain.

“When you go into the hospital, it’s a place of illness and suffering, it’s not a welcoming place for some patients,” Vongova said. “With music therapy, when you go into the hospital the environment is transformed into a place of hope and healing.”

Several members from the New York Philharmonic will join the UNCMS as well, a collaboration that happened “completely organically,” Vongova said.

“Eileen Moon [associate principal cellist of the Phil], who is one of my advisers and also a good friend, was talking about this concert and so many people in the New York Phil wanted to be a part of it,” Vongova said. “I didn’t even have to ask.”

Tuesday’s concert will open with the music of Christopher Tin, honorary artistic adviser for the UNCMS. His “Baba Yetu,” in an arrangement for chamber ensemble, sounds like an inspirational mashup of “Graceland”-era Paul Simon and Hans Zimmer’s “Lion King” soundtrack. (The piece was originally composed for a 2005 video game, but was rerecorded with the Soweto Gospel Choir and promptly won a Grammy in 2011.)

The remaining program pulls back a bit, focusing on comforting pieces such as “Jeux d’eau” from Cirque du Soleil’s “O” and a world premiere from Tim Fain and Jacob Marshall, which Vongova described as “therapeutic, almost spacious.”

Repertory selections fill out the evening, namely Handel’s ethereal “Pena tiranna,” from his opera “Amadigi di Gaula,” sung by countertenor David Yardley.

If you go: UN Chamber Music Society Music Therapy Concert with musicians of the New York Philharmonic takes place Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Ave., carnegiehall.org, $50-$60