Ben Levy may not be the world’s only cello-playing gastroenterologist, but it’s safe to bet that he’s the only cello-playing gastroenterologist who produces online video concerts.
As head of the gastroenterology department at Mount Sinai Hospital, Levy spends his days taking care of digestive tracts. He performs colonoscopies and endoscopies. He consults with patients and teaches med students. He’s committed to cancer screenings for underserved communities, and founded a Chicago gastroenterology clinic for refugees.
But night after night for the past few months, he has exercised a different, though related, passion.
Sitting in his South Loop condo, at a marble-topped cafe table facing his baby grand piano, he has put together a video concert that will stream on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Chicago time. Featuring 28 artists, some of them famous, it’s called “Tune It Up: A Concert To Raise Colorectal Cancer Awareness.”
It’s safe to bet that it’s the world’s first online concert dedicated to this cause. And it’s an important cause, as all of us who have lost someone we love to colon cancer know. I lost one of my brothers.
Levy, who’s 42, is a musician himself and began learning piano and cello as a boy growing up in Savannah, Georgia. In college, he studied music and medicine, torn between the two. Eventually, he chose medicine, figuring he could play music and organize concerts on the side.
But the connection between music and medicine never leaves his mind. He uses his hands to make music. He also uses his hands, in his words, “to fix people.”
“With my left hand, I hold the colonoscope in the exact same position as the cello,” he says. “With my right hand, I hold the camera tubing section of the colonoscope — going into the body — exactly like I hold the cello bow.”
Sometimes he plays his cello for hospital patients or for people in hospice. He knows there are things music can do that medicine can’t.
Through every phase of his life, Levy has woven both music and medicine into his days. When he moved to Chicago seven years ago, he chose to live in the South Loop because it was close to the hospital and to the symphony.
After the pandemic shut down musical performances, he founded a virtual concert series called Concerts & Cocktails, dedicated to educating people about COVID-19 while providing musical entertainment. A few months ago, the president of the American College of Gastroenterology suggested he do something similar to mark National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March. He was eager.
He started by emailing musicians and their managers, making a two-pronged pitch: Help us entertain the public during this time when live music performances have died. Help us educate about the new colon cancer screening guidelines.
He aimed high. He sent his pitch to such well-known artists as the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, the New Orleans jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and John Morris Russell, the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops.
He also wanted to feature Chicago musicians, and recruited, among others, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and K.F. Jacques, who blends hip-hop and opera.
Some nights as Levy emailed back and forth with musicians, usually while listening to music — Miles Davis, Rachmaninoff, the Dave Matthews Band — he sipped on a glass of red wine, though never on nights he was on call at the hospital. On those nights, he stuck to tea, ready to be summoned at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. for a gastroenterology emergency.
Yes, he says, those late-night emergencies happen a lot.
Almost everyone Levy reached out to responded enthusiastically.
The former TV anchor Katie Couric, q whose first husband died of colon cancer, agreed to be one of the presenters. Lisa Loeb, the singer-songwriter, quickly said yes, noting that her father was a gastroenterologist and she’d grown up discussing colons at the dinner table.
For the concert, Loeb recorded one of her newer songs, “Shine,” in her guest bedroom. “The song recognizes that things may not go your way, but you have the strength inside you to shine,” she says, a fitting message for a pandemic.
In recent weeks, with some tech help, Levy has stayed up until midnight most nights assembling the video performances. He received the last one, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, on Monday. On Tuesday, he watched the final video cut.
“It’s going to be amazing!” he said.
Amazing music. For free. From people with generous hearts. And educational too.
7 p.m. Chicago time, Wednesday, March 31. The link is here: https://gi.org/Concert/