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Vol. LXII, No. 12
June 11, 2010

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‘It Is a Holy Place’
Pianist, Composer Smith Offers Musical Thanks to NIH

On the front page...

Clifford Smith will tell you that he feels a special connection to NIH, to its staff and experts. He is not shy about sharing that sentiment because, by every estimation, they saved his life.

Smith, a prolific composer and exuberant concert pianist whose work is enjoyed worldwide, came back to say thank you in the most expressive way he knows how: by offering a concert of original works May 19 at the Clinical Research Center atrium for both scientific researchers and patients working through their own medical challenges.


  Pianist Clifford Smith  
  Pianist Clifford Smith  
“I want my feelings to be known,” he said, adding that few things are “as noble as the improvement of human health. I salute all of you.”

However, it’s not just the fact that he is alive today, but that he is living well that is thrilling to Smith. He knows things could have turned out differently.

In early 2005, Smith could tell something was wrong, so he went to see a doctor. Even with all the signs that something was amiss in his prostate, no one could pinpoint the exact problem or tell him what he was facing. His PSA count was 40 and rising, but still, physicians attempting to diagnose him were stymied.

Eventually, after consulting with several doctors, he was referred to NIH and arrived in June 2005. Desperate for answers, Smith underwent an exhaustive examination using a 3T MRI scanner. It was August 2005 and his PSA had shot up to 86. Smith was, as he put it, “on a disaster course.”

The diagnosis was prostate cancer and an aggressive one at that. Smith immediately started hormonal therapy. Weeks later, the cancer was gone. Subsequent scans couldn’t detect a single cancer cell. Smith was back from the abyss.

“I am indebted to [NIH physicians] for my life and for the quality of my life,” Smith said. “Cancer is a terrible disease and very insidious. My indebtedness to NIH is ongoing and forever. It’s the vanguard, the place with the most advanced thinking. It is an amazing place and an institution our country can be extremely proud of.”

It seemed only right to Smith, who remains on maintenance therapy to ensure the cancer does not return, to find a way to express his appreciation to the scientists, patient advocates and staff who shepherded him along his journey. A concert recital, played on the Clinical Center’s Steinway, was the obvious choice.

On the afternoon of the concert, Smith strode to the piano, addressed the keys and let loose a torrent of music that soared and flowed, danced and drifted, stomped and sang. All 9 selections were played from memory.

Smith dedicated a piece to his wife Pamela, saying, “She is a jewel, a great gift, and she stood by me through this cancer.”
Smith dedicated a piece to his wife Pamela, saying, “She is a jewel, a great gift, and she stood by me through this cancer.”

His first piece, A Star-Spangled Visage, a work with an ethereal quality, was played with tenderness as if caressing the tones and coaxing them forward. The fantasy included notes from the National Anthem’s first phrase that rose from the shimmering wave of sound.

A following work flirted with drama and dissonance, another pushed forward as if hungry and filled with yearning, intentionally leaving certain chords unresolved until the last possible moment.

A contemplative paraphrasing of Amazing Grace found audience members clutching their hands to their chests, smiling and nodding, the song a clear reflection of Smith’s awe for the work performed at NIH.

Pausing after completing the work, Smith spoke of his experience, crediting some of his medical team by name. Drs. Peter Choyke, Peter Pinto, Ravi Madan, James Gulley, Willliam Dahut, Jonathan Coleman and “block mothers” nurse practitioner Mary Pazdur and patient advocate Laura Cearnal were for him the tip of the spear in his fight against cancer.

“It was very life-threatening, and I am indebted to the skills and talents of the staff here,” he said. “We are all one army and we will find a cure for this disease.”

He returned to the piano and played a selection from a monumental work that, put together, constitutes more than 106 hours of music. The mysterious piece fluttered with intense movement and competing notes, persistent statements followed by trills and cascading bursts of sound.

He again returned to the microphone.

“I dedicate this next piece to my wife,” Smith said, looking at his spouse, Pamela, sitting in the front row. “She is a jewel, a great gift, and she stood by me through this cancer. I don’t think that I would have survived otherwise.”

The piece that followed was a beautiful nocturne, lullaby-like in its innocent hopefulness.

Smith’s final work, from his Perpetuum Mobile fantasies, came forward in a rush, almost locomotive-like but with variable rhythms and paces, charging straight one second and sideways the next, as if to describe the mad pace of human life—life that always manages to soldier on.

“This meant a lot to me,” he said shortly after the program’s close. “I’ve wanted to play here since I first saw this place. The atrium reminded me of a cathedral, and this place is a sanctuary for healing. It is a holy place.” NIHRecord Icon

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