GILBERT KAPLAN: Happy New Year! We kick off our new season with the first doctor to appear on “Mad About Music,” the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco.
KAPLAN: He became one of the foremost orthopedic surgeons from a most unlikely background: his father, the lead trumpet during the big band era with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. At Brown University he majored in classics, but today he’s the Chief Surgeon and the boss of New York’s acclaimed Hospital for Special Surgery -- always ranked in the surveys as number one in orthopedics. He is also the chief maestro of the hospital shaping the ever-present music that is played in the operating room and serves on the board of Carnegie Hall. Thomas Sculco, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
THOMAS SCULCO: Thank you Gil for having me.
KAPLAN: Now I suppose a good way to start this show is to bring the surgeon and the conductor into the room at the same time because it is often said that a surgeon is like the maestro of an orchestra like the maestro of the operating room. Is there any sense to that or is that just silly?
SCULCO: No, I think that’s very true. I think because just as a maestro would create when he conducts an orchestra, I think most surgeons will create when they’re doing an operation. Everyone is a little bit different.
KAPLAN: Now you are an orthopedic surgeon so in a typical operation that you would be doing, how many people would be in your orchestra?
SCULCO: Well, we have usually six or seven different people in the operating room.
KAPLAN: And I understand that it is quite common, I would say more the rule than the exception, that there is always music on during operations, not just when you’re going but in general.
SCULCO: Yeah, I think most surgical teams like to have music in the background and it tends to relax the surgical team and also as the patient is brought into the operating room. Many of them are anxious and I think music tends to calm the patient as they enter an operating room.
KAPLAN: Now I understand from some articles I’ve been reading about this phenomenon that sometimes there is a little bit of a dispute between the anesthesiologist who needs to hear certain beeping from the equipment so they are monitoring the anesthesia and the surgeon who likes it perhaps louder. Does that happen sometimes?
SCULCO: Well, more commonly what happens is there is a dispute as to the type of music you want to listen to. And for years I worked with an anesthesiologist who was a big Jimmy Buffet fan and I have nothing against Jimmy Buffet, but I prefer more classical music and it took about five years to infect him with the classical bug. But now he is a great lover of Bruckner and Mozart and Puccini and so in fact it did work.
KAPLAN: But can you listen to music while you’re operating that really requires you to listen? I mean, there’s some music which is nice background music, a lot of slow movements of baroque music. But you mentioned Bruckner, for example, or I see Wagner is on your list to play today. Can you have that kind of music on and think about your patient at the same time?
SCULCO: Yeah, actually I don’t find it distracting at all. I can really, I concentrate on what I’m doing. Surgery has some periods of high intensity and lower intensity and background music, even if it’s Wagner or Bruckner, I find very relaxing when I’m operating. It’s just music that I know and love and I think, if anything, it inspires me and I think I’m probably a better surgeon because of it.
KAPLAN: Well, there was a study you’re probably familiar with in 1994, the American Medical Association Journal published an article about the impact of music on surgery and they came to the conclusion that surgeons are “calmer, more accurate and speedier” when they have music on. Would you agree with that?
SCULCO: I think it’s true. Absolutely. It definitely relaxes not only the surgeon but the team around him. And it puts an air of equanimitas in the room. And I think it makes everybody more efficient and just more relaxed. It can be a very high intensity procedure when you’re doing surgery for the team as well as the surgeon and music in the background tends to lessen that intensity.
KAPLAN: All right, well then let’s turn to your musical selections today and I see the first one you have is Mozart. I don’t know if that’s a operating room favorite or why you picked it today, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me now.
SCULCO: Yeah, well, Mozart was really my first introduction to classical music and I grew up in the era of rock ‘n roll and the Beatles and those were music that I loved growing up. But when I went off to college I thought I should know something about classical music and I went to Brown University and enrolled in a course in music appreciation which most freshmen will. And I can remember the first introduction to Mozart and really classical music was the Mozart 40th Symphony. And I’ll never forget it. It had such an impact on me and just awakened a love for classical music that continued throughout my life. In the beginning of the Mozart 40th [sings] is a theme that has stayed with me throughout my whole life and it’s a big part of my life and music became a big part of my life. But that was sort of the inception of my interest in classical music.
KAPLAN: The first movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, often referred to by its key – the G minor. The Prague Chamber Orchestra led by Sir Charles Mackerras – the first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music” – and the work that first introduced him to classical music, the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco. All right, now you mentioned that you first discovered classical music in college. You really heard no classical music before then?
SCULCO: Very little. I mean, there was some at home, but I never was very interested in it before I went to college.
KAPLAN: But nobody encouraged you to take piano lessons? There was no real music in your home?
SCULCO: Well no, my father was actually a professional musician.
KAPLAN: I see.
SCULCO: And my father had an interesting background. He grew up in a small town in Rhode Island, got very interested in the trumpet when he was a kid and actually went to Juilliard for a couple of years. But rather than go the classical route, he went the Big Band route and he played with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and Harry James during that Big Band era.
SCULCO: So the music I grew up with a lot at home was more that kind of music: jazz, instrumental music. My father in his later years composed music so it was more along that line than classical music.
KAPLAN: Did you ever hear him play with these bands?
SCULCO: I did not. I heard him, he actually was in a number of recordings. I’ve heard him on recordings and also in those days, the Tommy Dorsey orchestra would be in a movie and you’d see the band march in and there would be my father playing the trumpet marching in. So I saw him lay actually in a couple of films. While I didn’t hear him play with the big bands because I was not born yet during that period, I did hear him play later on when of course the big band era died and the place for live music was Las Vegas. And so my father upped and packed the family and off we moved to Las Vegas in the mid fifties. And there my father played in many of the bands in the hotels for shows that were going on in Las Vegas at that time. So I got to hear my father in that. My father had the most amazing sound – that’s the way I would describe it – big fat if you will sound that just filled a room. And not only was he technically excellent but the sound was something recognizable and just outstanding. And I’ll never forget his big sound that he could produce from the trumpet.
KAPLAN: So I see you have a trumpet piece today. I assume that’s in honor of your father.
SCULCO: Well it is and it’s an interesting piece by Hummel. And I was an intern actually at the Roosevelt Hospital and it was late at night, come back to my room, turn on WQXR as I would do and there was this amazing trumpet concerto that I was listening to. I didn’t recognize it. And I actually liked it so much I called WQXR on the spot at two o’clock in the morning, whatever, to find out nobody was there. It was recorded, the program was recorded and they couldn’t tell me what the piece was and there was no answer really. And I subsequently called the next day and found out it was the Hummel Trumpet Concerto which really only came to light apparently in the late 1950’s. It was sort of a lost piece of music. But again, I think it demonstrates virtuosity for the trumpet like few pieces of music. And I immediately became attached to it and I recognize my father’s sound in it and so it meant a great deal to me.
KAPLAN: The last movement of Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto with soloist Hakan Hardenberger with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Neville Mariner – a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco. A work that provides vivid memories of trumpet music he heard as a child played by his father who worked during the Big Band era with both Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. When we return, we’ll explore Thomas Sculco’s personal encounter with the legendary pianist, Vladimir Horowitz.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco. You know, listening to that wonderful trumpet music, it just struck me that while every father must think it wonderful if his son becomes a doctor, I wonder if your father was ever disappointed you didn’t become a musician.
SCULCO: Well, I actually tried unsuccessfully. When I was in high school I picked up the trumpet and I thought it was going to be a very easy thing to do. And after a few lessons with my father, that ended my trumpet career. Because he was a perfectionist and I basically did not want to put the time into practice and he really didn’t want to waste his time with me. So my trumpet career went down in flames pretty quickly.
KAPLAN: Well then, let’s turn to the piano as I see you have a legendary performer, Vladimir Horowitz, on your list of your selections to play today. Is he your favorite?
SCULCO: Pianists, well, Horowitz of course was a patient of mine actually. So not only did I love him as a pianist, but I also got to know him. And Rubinstein and Argerich I like very much.
KAPLAN: You mentioned Horowitz was a patient of yours. Well, he’s of course no longer alive and I don’t know if it’s confidential to tell us anything. But what can you tell us about him as a patient? What did you see him for?
SCULCO: It was very interesting how I first met Horowitz. I was actually taking care of his wife, Wanda, who was Toscanini’s daughter as most people know, and he entered the examining room just as I was finishing the examination. And I’ll never forget this, he extended his hand to me and I looked at him and I said, “Mr. Horowitz, aren’t you concerned that I might crush your fingers by shaking your hand?” And he looked at me and said, “Well, Dr. Sculco, you’re a surgeon, aren’t you?” I said “Yes.” He said, “Well, you have as much respect for your hands as I have for mine, so I have no problem shaking your hands.” So I’ll never forget that, that exchange between us. And then subsequently he had a problem with his knee and I would make house calls actually and see him in his home. And I can remember vividly going to his home on two or three occasions and after examining him and talking with him, he would say, “Ah, Dr. Sculco, would you like to hear something?” And I would sit there and he would play for me on several occasions and it was the most exciting experience of my life.
KAPLAN: Can you remember what he played at all?
SCULCO: He would play a Chopin, some Chopin, maybe Liszt. Simple little preludes or simple little, very short little pieces. Chopin, Liszt, Mozart. But what I remember most distinctly was his hands. And as an orthopedic surgeon you notice people’s hands and he had the most amazing hands. They were very gracile, long, thin fingers, perfectly manicured, absolutely no evidence of any arthritis in his hands. It was amazing.
KAPLAN: I suppose arthritis would be debilitating beyond belief for a pianist.
SCULCO: Can be devastating, absolutely.
KAPLAN: Can it be fixed?
SCULCO: Arthritis in the hands can be improved upon, but the joints are so small that the function can quickly deteriorate if you have arthritis in those small joints. So it can be a problem, particular for people who need fine control, like a pianist.
KAPLAN: And, of course, that would certainly include Horowitz. Now I see you’ve picked one of my favorite recordings from the history-making event of Horowitz’s return to perform in Russia after a 60 year absence.
SCULCO: That was an amazing concert. Here’s a man who had not been there in many years, returned, and the love that he showed to his audience as well as their love for him was obvious in the room. And I also have a video of that concert and people are crying and it brings tears to your eyes when you watch that. The emotion and the feeling in the room is incredible. I think that’s one of the most amazing concerts in piano repertoire ever. And actually the piece I’d like to share with you today is one of the pieces that he plays on that recording at that concert by Rachmaninoff.
KAPLAN: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Opus 32 No. 5 performed in a historic 1986 concert at the Moscow Conservatory when Vladimir Horowitz returned to Russia after an absence of 60 years. A selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco. You know, just listening to you speak about this music it’s obvious to me that you have quite an emotional connection to music. It’s not that you just like it; you seem to really feel it. Earlier you said that music is on in the operating room because it’s meant to relax you. But at the end of the day, if you had an operation which really was a long one, a tough one, maybe someone almost died, when you finally get home, do you ever turn to music to decompress? And if so, what might you listen to under those circumstances?
SCULCO: Well, I wouldn’t listen to a Bruckner or Wagner at that point. And I would look to something more relaxing: probably Mozart, maybe Bach, maybe something Baroque, maybe Vivaldi – something much more relaxing and less interactive if you will; something that is perhaps more cerebral and less visceral in arousing an emotion.
KAPLAN: It’s interesting you pick some of the Baroque composers for this occasion. But one other thing you might listen to which is a good transition into the next section of our program which we call the “wildcard” would be a “wildcard” -- maybe not classical music. And this is an opportunity for you to talk about music which is not classical or opera. It’s a feature of the show everybody loves. So what did you bring today?
SCULCO: Well, what I brought was a song actually from Naples and there is a great school of songwriters that came from Naples and wrote again some very beautiful melodies and again very passionate and very emotional and most of them are about unrequited love or problems with love relationships. And the one I particularly like is a song called “Cor ‘ngrato.” That’s the official name for “Catari, Catari” is another name for it. And this is, this song I’ve heard many times because it’s the kind of song that is played in a lot of Italian weddings. And growing up in an Italian household, I would go to a lot of Italian weddings and inevitably somebody would say to the accordion player, play “Cor ‘ngrato.” So it was a song that stuck with me. And then of course Giuseppe di Stefano, I thought, who was a great singer, but recorded these Neapolitan songs and…
KAPLAN: Tell us a little bit about the story the song tells.
SCULCO: Well, the name of the song is “Cor ‘ngrato” which translates into the ungrateful heart and it’s about a lover who is absolutely madly in love with his woman and she treats him very badly. And despite the fact he loves her passionately and madly, she wants no part of him. So it’s his heartfelt expression of love for her and how sad he is because she’s not reciprocating his love in any way.
KAPLAN: Giuseppe Di Stefano singing the traditional Neapolitan song
“Core ‘ngrato”, “ungrateful heart”, the “wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco. Let’s talk a bit about the role music plays in your life today. How often do you and your wife go to concerts or the opera?
SCULCO: I would say probably at least once a week we do something, and sometimes twice a week.
KAPLAN: And do you find that after the kind of intensive day that you would put in, because after all you’re not just a surgeon, but you’re also running an institution, do you find you have the energy to listen carefully and not be too tired?
SCULCO: The opposite. I find it extremely relaxing to go to a concert after a long hard day and I find the music uplifting and moving and reinvigorates me in fact.
KAPLAN: Now you mentioned earlier that you went to the Bayreuth Festival recently to hear The Ring. Is that something you try to get into your schedule to go to some of these summer festivals?
SCULCO: Actually, that’s the way my wife and I like to spend our vacations. So some people like to play golf; some people like to go out on their boats. We like to go to a music festival and we generally go at least once a year either to Salzburg or to Lucerne last year or to Bayreuth. We’ve been to Bayreuth on two occasions. Or to Seattle and hear The Ring.
KAPLAN: Now you also mentioned earlier that you do find music is helpful when you’re working and I wonder if you also like to have music on when you’re writing. And my God, do you write. I don’t know if your office misunderstood when we asked for a biography. We actually got a list of something on the order of 484 papers, books, chapters you’ve written. So, do you have music on when you write?
SCULCO: I do. Sometimes if I am really concentrating on something very scientific and technical, then I will turn the music off because sometimes I do find myself drifting a little bit and listening. If I do write with music, again it’s generally more relaxing piano music, piano sonatas, violin sonatas, trios, that sort of thing.
KAPLAN: Well, your next piece on your list of musical selections doesn’t fall in that category and it’s Bruckner. And I understand from many of your colleagues who I happen to know, they regard you as a Bruckner freak; a real fanatic about Bruckner. Is that a fair thing to say?
SCULCO: That’s absolutely true. I am a fanatic for Bruckner and I infected my wife with the same virus and she is now a fanatic for Bruckner. And I am happy to say I have been able to infect a number of my friends with the same virus. Bruckner is very special. He is the kind of composer that you either love him or you find him long and heavy and dull. But for me, I find him extremely passionate and spiritual. I was first introduced to Bruckner probably twenty years ago when I was at home and again I had the radio on and I heard this piece of music and these pounding rhythms and these beautiful adagios. And at the end of the piece I wanted to hear who the composer was and I thought the announcer said Max. I thought he said Bruch, Bruch’s Fourth Symphony. So I immediately went to a record store and said I want Bruch’s Fourth Symphony at which time they said, “No, no, Bruch didn’t write symphonies. He wrote the violin concerto.” I said, “No, no, no.” So the salesman said, “You must mean Bruckner.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, Bruckner, that’s who I want, Bruckner.” And I took it home. It was a recording and I’ll never forget it. I listened to it and that was the music and I became a convert at that point. So my first experience was with the romantic, the Fourth Symphony of Bruckner. But what I’d like to play today is really my favorite and that’s the Bruckner Eighth. And in the Bruckner Eighth, the adagio movement, the third movement, is particularly a moving, spiritual piece of music for me with the strings and the harp coming in over the strings. It’s incredible. Probably the greatest concert I’ve ever been to in my life was one of von Karajan’s last performances. It was at Carnegie Hall, Vienna Philharmonic, Bruckner Eighth. I believe it was 1989 and he could barely walk. He had tremendous weakness in his arms and legs. He was practically helped on to the stage and he went on to the podium and there was a frame, I’ll never forget this. He leaned back into a frame because he could barely stand. But he did stand; he didn’t sit. And he raised his hands. And being an orthopedic surgeon, I noticed the severe atrophy of the muscles in his hands and this was because he had terrible arthritis in his neck and had compromised the nerves to his hands. And for an hour and twenty minutes Carnegie Hall was mesmerized. There was not a sound as he had absolute control over this orchestra. And at the end, the applause went on for twenty to thirty minutes. I’ve never seen anything like this. And von Karajan kept walking off, being assisted, and coming back. And most of us in the audience knew that this was one of his last concerts. And the power of the man over the orchestra and the sound that was created that night, was just an amazing experience; I’ll never forget it. One of my good friends who is a Bruckner nut like I am told me the story afterwards. He was on his way home with his wife and they were very upset. And I said, “Well why were you upset? It was the most exhilarating concert I’ve ever been to.” He said, “Well we both realized that we would never hear it played like that again.”
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the adagio of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco, for whom a performance of the Eighth by the Vienna Philharmonic led by Herbert von Karajan at Carnegie Hall was perhaps the greatest musical experience of his life. When we return, we’ll hear Dr. Sculco’s final selection, what he regards as the most moving love duet ever written.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco. You know, I continue to be impressed at the emotional personal connection you feel to music, especially the music you’ve selected today. One of my earlier guests on the show, the Hollywood Director, William Friedkin -- you know, he directed “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” -- he said that “Classical music is the soundtrack of my life.” Now, if you had to pick a composer for the soundtrack of your life, who would it be? Bruckner? Someone else?
SCULCO: I think it might be Richard Strauss, one of his Tone poems. And I think.
SCULCO: Yeah, “Heldenleben” is the one that comes to mind.
KAPLAN: Hero’s life.
SCULCO: Well, not necessarily “hero’s life” but I think it’s a whole translation of very different episodes until he ends up who he is. You can say “Till Eulenspiegel” but he comes to a very unfortunate end so hopefully it’s not that. But I think Richard Strauss is another composer for me who is very special and I love his tone poems and “Heldenleben” is a perfect example of a great piece of music and a great story.
KAPLAN: It would be a perfect soundtrack for you. I’d ask you one another question about a personal choice and I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this. You won’t be the first person I’ve asked about it, but you being a doctor, I feel less self-conscious than I sometimes do. Have you thought at all about what music you might want played at your funeral?
SCULCO: Ah, yes I have.
KAPLAN: Doesn’t surprise me.
SCULCO: Yes, no. And I’ve actually, it goes back to Bruckner and the adagio movement again that you heard excerpts from today is that piece of music that I would like played. It’s interesting, when I was listening to von Karajan at Carnegie Hall that night, I’ll never forget this, I leaned over to my wife during that adagio movement and I said if they’re playing music in heaven, this is what they’re playing. And I’ve often thought that at my funeral, that I’d like a symphony orchestra to play some Bruckner.
KAPLAN: Well let’s leave funerals then in favor of love as we approach your final selection. I’m assuming you wouldn’t play this in the operating room, but on the other hand, you may very well tell me there are at least parts of it you could. And it’s from one of the big operas -- Wagner’s Ring.
SCULCO: Yeah, Siegfried is an opera that I think is maligned a little bit. The third opera in The Ring cycle. I think if you ask most people, they would say it’s the one they like the least. Wagner I believe liked it the best actually. And I find it extremely moving, particularly the very end of Siegfried, the awakening scene where Siegfried who has no fear climbs the precipice and walks through this ring of fire and awakens Brunnhilde and she says, “Heil dir, Sonne; Heil dir, Licht.” Hail to the sun, hail to the light.” And the duet that follows that is incredibly beautiful. And the last five minutes of Siegfried is again the most moving love duet that I think probably has ever been written. And the very ending of it is just incredibly powerful and beautiful. And the recording I listen to often is the 1953 recording with Astrid Varney and the power of her last note in that opera that closes Siegfried is amazing.
KAPLAN: The concluding moments and the extraordinary duet from Wagner’s Siegfried sung by Wolfgang Windgassen and Astrid Varnay from a live recording of the performance at the 1953 Bayreuth Festival, the final selection of my guest on “Mad About Music”, the Chief Surgeon of the Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. Thomas Sculco. Now we come to the last section of the show, one of my favorites – “Fantasyland” is what I call it, where guests are all required to reveal their musical fantasies and that includes you. So the question for you is, in your fantasy, if you could be a star, either as a performer, conductor or composer, what would it be?
SCULCO: Well, I’d like to be a tenor, an opera singer.
KAPLAN: Do you have a role you would imagine for you?
SCULCO: Well, a Verdi role, maybe Il Trovatore. Maybe the duke in Rigoletto. But I think I am a frustrated singer. Unfortunately I have no talent at all. But I very much would like to be a singer. “E Lucevan Le Stella”, “Recondita Harmonia”, some of the great arias from Tosca. I’ve tried to sing them; I sing them badly. But in my next life I would like to come back as Franco Corelli.
KAPLAN: Very good. Well, I thought you were going to say conductor being the maestro of the operating room. That doesn’t interest you at all?
SCULCO: It does. I think number two would be a conductor.
KAPLAN: I see.
SCULCO: But number one is being a tenor I think because they create, as well as a great voice, you can be dramatic, you can again be very moving and you have the power of the music just allowing your voice to rise over it. It’s an incredible experience.
KAPLAN: Well, I’d like to be there when it happens. Dr. Thomas Sculco, thank you very much for appearing today. You’ve been a superb guest. I’ll think more about music in case I wind up in your operating room. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”