YouTube performance gets Modesto surgeon a free trip to Carnegie Hall

March 03, 2009

The dexterous fingers that helped Dr. Calvin Lee become a successful surgeon have won him a spot in the first YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

The Modesto general surgeon and acupuncturist is playing violin in the group. He and the 90-plus other winning musicians from around the world are getting an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to perform in concert April 15 at Carnegie Hall.

The winning musicians also will be featured performing a piece written by Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") in a mash-up video that should be posted on YouTube the next day.

"I'm pleasantly surprised," said Lee, 37, in an e-mail interview. "I watched all these international players play Paganini caprices (some of the hardest pieces written for violin) in their kitchens, bedrooms and hallways -- they were very impressive, so impressive that I pretty much thought I didn't have a chance."

About 3,000 amateur and professional musicians from 70-plus countries posted audition videos on YouTube, with the winners chosen by a public online vote and several judges. One judge was Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony director, who will conduct the group.

"We are excited about the talent, variety and adventurousness of the musicians who are coming together from around the world to form the YouTube Symphony Orchestra," Tilson Thomas told The Associated Press. "I am looking forward to our exploration of the incredible range of classical music's 1,200-year-old tradition, which we will present in a unique way to our audience."

Winning musicians range in age from 17 to 55 and come from 30 or so countries, including Australia, South Korea, Ukraine and France. They will attend three days of master classes and rehearsals before the Carnegie Hall concert.

Lee and his wife, plastic surgeon Dr. Tammy Wu, own Surgical Artistry in Modesto and are avid supporters of the arts. Lee is on the board of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra and is a backer of the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Born and raised in New York City, Lee started playing violin at age 7. He was concertmaster at Harvard University in 1987 and of the Brown University Orchestra in 1992-93. During one year in college, he played about 60 concerts.

Lately, he has played violin less frequently. He performed last year with an Assyrian rock band at the Gallo Center and performs in the annual Docs Play the Pops benefit for the Modesto Junior College Friends of Music (next concert is June 7).

Lee, who also plays piano, learned about the YouTube orchestra from The New York Times and was immediately excited about the idea.

"It's an amazing idea," he said. "It has promoted classical music to so many people. In some ways, I guess it's like 'American Idol' with the audience voting, but it is for classical music and orchestral players."

He said he recorded his two audition videos after about two weeks of light practicing.

"My violin strings were over a decade old, and the hair kept falling off my bow," Lee said. "I later discovered that there was a small crack in my violin."

Lee said violin fits in well with his surgery career because the instrument provides dexterity exercises for the fingers.

"Both music and surgery require focus and vision," he said. "Also, surgery on each patient is different, but the main themes are the same. This is much like music. ... And there's the analogy of bright lights in the (operating room) and bright lights on stage -- you're in the spotlight and everyone is watching, and you'd better perform your best."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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