Heart and Soul

December 9, 2001

Carol Schlueter
Phone: 865-5714

Let's start at the very beginning with a chance conversation at a dinner party. Suddenly, Joseph Murgo found himself talking about his background in choral music with Paul Whelton. It was a bit off the usual track for two senior leaders of the Tulane Health Sciences Center.

Whelton is the senior vice president for health sciences and Murgo is chief of cardiology. But it was a very good place to start, and before long, Murgo would find himself organizing something dear to his heart: the Tulane Health Sciences Center Chorale. Now nearly a year old and 50 voices strong, the group of singing students, faculty and staff from the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is doing a lot more than do-re-mi.

With assistance from Latoya Mason, a fourth-year medical student and pianist who serves as accompanist, they're getting ready to perform two holiday concerts with classics by Bizet, Handel, Mozart and Vaughn Williams. The first performance is at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, at Trinity Church, 1329 Jackson Ave., followed by a concert at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 10, in the School of Medicine Auditorium.

"There have been a lot of extra rehearsals and the level of difficulty is challenging, but he's got us whipped into shape," said Paul Rodenhauser, assistant dean for academic and counseling services and professor of psychiatry/neurology. "He really has a way of rallying people, getting them to support the cause."

He, of course, is Murgo, the charismatic leader of the chorale who came to Tulane two-and-one-half years ago to become director of the Cardiovascular Center of Excellence. Previously, he had spent nine years as chief of cardiology at Ochsner. Attention to his career in cardiology had caused him to put his choral music involvement on the shelf for 17 years.

After many years of choral work, from singing tenor in his college choir at the University of Pennsylvania (where he met his wife, a soprano), to performing with the San Antonio Symphony Master Singers, he had a choice to make.

"I stopped in 1983," Murgo said. "My cardiology research was too demanding. I had to figure out if I was a doctor or a musician." His medical career won out, but the choral heartbeat was to resurrect itself eventually.

And that brings us back to a year ago, when Murgo started recruiting singers, first among students and faculty, then among staff, then in the Tulane Hospital. And now he would love to expand with more singers from the uptown campus.

With today's demanding work environment, how did Murgo manage to make the ensemble work? And combine the talents of professionally trained musicians with singers who have a love of music but no training in sight-reading?

"It's my passion," Murgo reflected. "Keeping a bunch of unpaid amateurs together is a challenge, but it's a great escape from a high-stress job and a very busy life. I see so many of the group enjoying it. There are other things in life besides medicine."

Candy Legeai is thrilled that she joined the group. The department administrator in psychiatry/neurology, she was a music major in college. "I love music, but there was always an excuse not to pursue it. This was a good opportunity to try. Singing for Murgo has been a wonderful experience. He's so dynamic," she said. "Everyone has fallen in love with him. And he's doing something unique and challenging."

For Rodenhauser and others, making time for rehearsals is difficult but singing is a joy to do. He added, "I wanted to show support for this. I love the involvement, the camaraderie, the attention it draws to the arts in medical education."

Rodenhauser was especially glad to help get the organization started because he also runs SARBA, Students Against Right Brain Atrophy, a medical students organization now in its fourth year, which involves students in creative and arts-oriented projects to expand their education.

In its first year the chorale has already thrilled audiences. A standing ovation at Trinity Church ended their first concert in the spring. There are even health benefits for the singers. "It's a great stress reliever," Murgo said. What better stress reliever than music? Bring on the harmony.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000