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Culture / Arts

Methodist’s Music Man

The Son of Houston’s Legendary Heart Surgeon Heals in His Own, Unique Way

BY // 03.07.16

J. Todd Frazier conducts himself beautifully: He’s creating the world-class musical programming for Houston Methodist Hospital’s lobby performances; composing an opera based on a heart transplant performed by his heart-surgeon father Dr. Bud Frazier; and writing the lauded symphony Thomas Jefferson; The Making of America, performed at Kennedy Center. And, oh yes, the J. in his name stands for Jefferson.

Sunlight floods a skylit room, where tropical greens flourish and rows of seats are filled to capacity by a rapt audience of several hundred. A violinist wields a bow, and chords drift through the beautiful space in the heart of the city. The program played that day is unique and at the highest level: Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet, Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major K. 136 and Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls performed by a group of 16 string players, from a newly minted conductor-less orchestra founded and led by Rice University Shepherd School doctoral candidate Natalie Lin.

The venue? This is not downtown’s performing arts halls, the Wortham Theater Center or the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Improbably, this is a scene set in the Crain Garden lobby of Houston Methodist Hospital at the Texas Medical Center, where close to 100 concert programs take place throughout the year. Cue the man who makes this happen: Center for Performing Arts Medicine (CPAM) director J. Todd Frazier.

Frazier holds dual degrees — a bachelor’s in composition with a minor in piano from Eastman School of Music, plus a master’s and professional studies in composition from the Juilliard School of Music — that make him the match of many a veteran of worldwide symphonic stages.

The NEA-lauded department was founded 20 years ago by otolaryngologist Dr. Richard Stasney (current chair emeritus of CPAM and director of Texas Voice Center), who regularly treated opera singers. But the department officially began when it branched out to care for symphony musicians, then actors and ballet dancers. In the ensuing decades, CPAM has moved to the forefront of a new wave of medicine, wherein artists are seen as analogous to professional athletes. About 125 physicians take calls to treat 650 patients annually.

Meanwhile, arts programming — a major tenet of Frazier’s job description — has been folded into a more holistic concept of medicine, both within the hospital environment for doctors, staff, patients and families, and as therapy in clinical settings, which is especially effective in cognitive improvement of stroke patients. A fourth component of Frazier’s responsibilities involves metrics and breaking ground in research into the beneficial role of art, especially music, on those undergoing treatment. To the above ends, Frazier’s department — which includes administrative staff, music therapists and pianists — is being ramped up from seven, including Frazier himself, to an additional quartet of therapists and pianists in 2016.

Frazier’s bosses in this endeavor, Dr. Robert E. Jackson, chairman, CPAM (and a top doc in internal medicine), and Carole Hackett, RN and senior VP of human resources, greenlight these integrative music-plus-medicine initiatives to make Methodist’s amplified commitment to the arts possible.

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Todd Frazier at the Crain Garden’s Steinway, Houston Methodist Hospital, Texas Medical Center

At CPAM, Frazier presides over an impossibly packed calendar, recently expanded to oversee music and visual arts programming for the healthcare system’s eight Houston-area hospitals. Philanthropist Margaret Williams annually underwrites the concert series at the Texas Medical Center Methodist flagship. The resulting free concerts — anyone strolling by is welcome to sit and listen — encompass a broad swath of vocalists and instruments while bowing to our city’s diversity.

With a résumé marked by leadership — Frazier is fondly remembered as the founder and first executive director of American Festival for the Arts, a program to foster young musicians, now in its third decade — he and MD Anderson colleague Ian Cion are now at work on a big, bold idea. The pair hopes to hatch “a Texas Medical Center-wide Arts and Health Center that would be a centralized hub of activity to all TMC institutions as well as a bridge to the Houston community,” Methodist’s music man reveals. The name DRAW has been floated, and serious discussions are underway.

But Frazier is far more than an administrator and a man of ideas. He keeps his composing chops honed and has written symphonic works that bow to American history and Texana, science and medicine. One of the most memorable is Breath of Life , a one-act opera set in a hospital based on a true-life heart transplant his heart surgeon father, Bud Frazier, performed; the opera premiered last fall at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

His greatest opus to date debuted in Washington, DC: the first movement of Frazier’s oratorio Thomas Jefferson; the Making of America, which memorably premiered on April 3, 2011, at Kennedy Center, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach with soprano Renée Fleming. The piece was reprised at Jefferson’s Monticello last May, the showpiece of an anniversary black-tie dinner featuring remarks by Tom Brokaw and an introduction by Pulitzer-winner Jon Meacham. (Catch Jefferson’s next performance, by the Galveston Symphony at The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston on Sunday, May 1.)

Next on his compositional bandwagon is a musical endeavor closer to home, Frazier says. “I am currently working on a piece for orchestra and actor on the life of Jesse Jones, with Steven Fenberg, Jesse Jones biographer [author of Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism and the Common Good] .”

While composing new music is inspiring for Frazier, one senses that his role at Methodist is the ultimate game-changer. “The arts offer a unique and dynamic common denominator … while keeping us firmly in tune with our humanity,” he said. Frazier’s work at CPAM is metaphorically composing a new model for what a career in culture looks like.

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