Musicians rehearsing every Tuesday night with the National Institutes of Health Philharmonia include an atmospheric scientist, a radiation epidemiologist, an aerospace engineer and a neuro-ophthalmologist. Their educational degrees come from this country’s most prestigious academic and music schools.
But this is not a professional city orchestra. The musicians here are all volunteers. “These people are finding cures, making the world a better place,” said Nancia D’Alimonte, who has been the conductor since 2005. “So, in turn I make their life better by adding music.”
Susanne Goldberg, a chemist who currently is a stay-at-home mom, has been playing the flute since she was 10 years old. The Germantown resident has “always loved music. It’s been my stress reliever.”
Playing with the NIH Philharmonia “is just a great way to get together with people” who share a love of music and science, said Goldberg, who is one of the orchestra’s original members. She credits much of the orchestra’s success to D’Alimonte. “She really pushed us to practice more, to play our best.”
Michael Stein plays cello with the NIH group as well as the Arlington Philharmonic, an opera company, theater group and chamber orchestra. Stein, of Arlington — like about half the orchestra now — doesn’t work at the NIH. The software engineer with Northrup Grumman heard about the orchestra through a cello list serve, and he’s been tackling the Northern Virginia to Bethesda traffic once a week ever since.
“The level of musicianship is very high. Nancia does very challenging programs,” Stein said.
Prior to 2005, NIH sponsored a community orchestra that consisted equally of playing and socializing. That group continues to perform, but a spin-off chamber orchestra became the roots of the NIH Philharmonia. It has grown from 28 to 80 instrumentalists.
When D’Alimonte moved to Falls Church ready to grow her professional conducting career, she put in a call to the NIH Recreation and Welfare Organization, and “we’ve been running Formula 500 speed ever since,” she said.
When asked why she thought to call NIH, D’Alimonte at first seemed surprised there could be any confusion. “It seemed to be a natural. If you are going to start your own [orchestra], you need very, very smart people. You need dedicated people. You need people who know how to manage time,” she explained. Albert Einstein was an amateur violinist, she said.
D’Alimonte’s first concert with NIH was in January 2005; a second soon followed in May of that year.
D’Alimonte is an adjunct professor and orchestra conductor at George Washington University and also guest conducts throughout the world. She has a doctorate of musical arts in orchestral conducting from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where she studied with Israeli conductor Mendi Rodan. She speaks the way she conducts, orchestrating her words by lifting and lowering her body as if she always holds a baton in her hand.
Since taking over, D’Alimonte has required all musicians to audition before gaining entry, including those who had already been playing with the NIH. The idea, she explained, was both to understand the level of each player as well as to make sure they could perform the pieces she selected.
“My job is to inspire these musicians. I am the vessel for which all music flows,” she said. “When I get to the podium, something unique happens. It’s my gift from above. I can inspire people beyond their means.”
She speaks equally enthusiastically about her musicians. “I have some of the brightest people in their fields. They all have the attitude that their hobby has to be as good as their day job,” she said. “We play at a professional level. We’ve come from very young to a professional level. Ever since the beginning, each concert is a little harder.”
These musicians support each other and work together like a family, she said. The competition found in city orchestras is lacking here, she said. “People clap and get excited” following the solos of fellow musicians. “Everyone wants everyone to do their best. This orchestra is unique.”
Once a week for two hours, the musicians cram into “literally a glorified hallway” in NIH Building 10. They hold five concerts a season. However, this year there will only be four due to the high level of music she has chosen, D’Alimonte explained.
Their next concert is Dec. 6 at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church on Montrose Road in Rockville. While there is no admittance charge, the orchestra does ask for donations. D’Alimonte proudly notes that during the past 14 months, the philharmonia has raised more than $12,000 that is distributed to various NIH charities.
To her, the NIH Philharmonia is “a quadruple win. It’s a win for the scientists who get to play. It’s a win for the audience. They get to hear a quality orchestra. It’s a win for me. Conducting is a very difficult field to break into, and it’s a win for NIH charities.”