Kevin Riordan: Holiday sounds from a physician/composer

Posted: November 30, 2010

Both as a cardiologist and a composer, Mitchell C. Rosenberg makes sure that the beat goes on.

That's his quip, and I'm borrowing it (thanks, Doc), because in addition to fixing hearts and writing music, this ebullient gentleman can turn a phrase.

"The heart is certainly known for its rhythm and timing," says Rosenberg, an attending physician at Kennedy University Hospital-Cherry Hill.

Rosenberg's new choral piece (working title: Candles of Freedom) will debut Dec. 9 at the annual winter concert at Philadelphia's William Penn Charter School.

"Musicians don't have this kind of opportunity every day," says Rosenberg, 54, a father of three who lives in Cherry Hill. "It's a wonderful gift."

The concert will feature sacred and secular music by the 90-voice Charter Singers, a 60-piece symphonic band (including 17-year-old trumpeter Perry Rosenberg), and a 15-piece jazz band.

"There are more performers onstage than any audience I've ever had!" the elder Rosenberg says.

The show, at 7:30 p.m., is free and open to the public.

Noting Rosenberg's dual talents, Kennedy assistant vice president Beth Reichman says, "We're proud to have him."

Candles is Rosenberg's first choral work.

"You could describe it as a jazzy waltz," the composer says. "If Chopin were to write a Hanukkah song, it might start like this."

Rosenberg studied violin while growing up on Long Island. He played in the symphony at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he earned his M.D., specializing in interventional cardiology.

Along the way he taught himself to play the piano, but what he wryly describes as his "limitations as a performer" shifted his focus toward composition. He has written children's songs and jazz tunes, including one dedicated to his daughter, Ellen. His first album, Heart of Jazz, will be released soon.

Despite generations of music professionals in Rosenberg's family - his grandfather and great-grandfather were cantors - "I always wanted to be a doctor," he says, adding that he was fascinated that something seemingly as minor as a single protein could have dramatic health consequences.

Medicine, of course, is not the only field where minuscule elements can have a major impact. A piece of music, particularly when performed for an audience, can certainly be described as a living thing. And mathematics is integral to both disciplines.

"The exacting rules and rewards for perfection in music attract [people] who also are interested in the sciences," Rosenberg says.

"A song should have a harmonious feel, and your relationship with a patient should be harmonious," he adds. "Medications all work together in the same way that the chords all work together. Of course, I'm riffing a little here."

Rosenberg is particularly pleased that Candles was selected for the prestigious concert by Joe Fitzmartin, Penn Charter's director of choirs. "The day Fitz announced it," he says, "was one of the best days of my life."

Rosenberg's is the first original piece selected for the annual concert.

"I'm always looking for something new and exciting for these kids to sing," Fitzmartin says. "And they were really taken with Mitch's piece."

So was he; the "very interesting melody" was instantly memorable and held a striking echo of traditional Jewish music. Fitzmartin, a composer himself, worked closely with Rosenberg to give final shape to Candles of Freedom.

"When people hear this," he says, "they're going to say, 'Wow!' "

That was certainly the composer's reaction when he heard the choir sing it.

"It was no longer an idea," Rosenberg says. "It was a reality."

On a video of a recent rehearsal, Candles emerges as a sweet blend of classical and traditional elements, seasoned with swing.

"I've always liked that feeling of moving from classical into jazz," Rosenberg says. "It's uplifting. It's like parasailing."

With plenty of heart.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

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