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History of the NIHCO

Over a half century, there have been a number of orchestras that have formed at the National Institutes of Health. The current NIH Community Orchestra is the fourth one, founded in 1996 by Gary Daum. Recent concert rosters have included over 70 musicians with full symphony orchestra instrumentation and full chorus making this the largest to date. In its 18th year of existence, it is still gaining momentum with no end in sight to its growth.

Perhaps one of the more remarkable facts about the group is that the NIHCO is an all volunteer organization. This group of talented musicians comes together to make music for the sheer joy of music. Proceeds from the NIHCO concerts benefit charities of NIH, including the Patient Emergency Fund, The Children’s Inn, and Camp Funshine.

The NIH Community Orchestra (known initially as the NIH Chamber Orchestra) began meeting in October 1996 to provide an orchestral outlet for the rich and diverse musical talent of the NIH and HHS research community. In the following year, it added woodwinds and brasses and quickly expanded its size and repertoire. The NIHCO roster often includes employees of numerous other government agencies (including NASA, Navy, Army, Air Force, NIST, FDA, EPA, LOC, DOJ), local high school students and educators, and members of the general community.

The NIHCO's first major concert was the first NIH Messiah Singalong on December 21, 1997. For its role in the project, the NIHCO received a 1998 Award of Excellence from the NIH R&W. Among its musical highlights will be the thirteenth annual Messiah Sing-Along (in conjunction with the Bethesda Little Theater) and the Gaithersburg Fourth of July Celebration, the 5th time performing in the village band shell. In December 2000, the Washington Post Weekender included the NIHCO's Messiah concert in its listing of "weekend's best." The group has also been nominated twice in four years for the Acacia Federal Bank’s “Nice Guys Awards” as recognition of the groups outreach activities.

The orchestra's concert repertoire has spanned six centuries, encompassing many periods, nationalities, and styles from music of the Renaissance through 20th century composers such as Beethoven, Bartok, Vaughan Williams, Copland, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Rimskey Korsakoff. In its June 2002 concert, former associate conductor Jesse Parker presented the world premiere of Psalm 9:11, a composition by NIHCO founder Gary Daum as a musical reflection on the events of September 11, 2001. The performance represented one of the first 9-11 related orchestral compositions to be performed in the US (and the entire world). Psalm 9:11 continues to be performed by various choirs and ensembles around the Washington DC area.

Along with the excitement and challenge of concert performances, an important mission of the NIHCO is to give area musicians a chance to acquaint--or re-acquaint--themselves with some of the standard orchestral repertoire. Many NIHCO rehearsals are "reading" rehearsals where the orchestra will read through and work out some of the basic details of a piece of music in a relaxed atmosphere without the pressure of meeting full performance demands; the group brings music to the community and provides an outlet for the creativity of its members and a place where they can have fun and enjoy making good music.

For most of the time it has been in existence, the NIH Community Orchestra rehearsals and concerts were held in the Masur Auditorium of the Clinical Center at NIH. Unfortunately, the events of September 11, 2001 and the security measures that followed at NIH caused us to lose our rehearsal and performance facilities (a plight that was noted in the September 27, 2001 edition of New York Times and a recent book by the same author). Thanks to the tenacity of the NIHCO musicians and their unwillingness to let something precious be another victim of the attacks, the December Messiah concert was not only performed on schedule, it became among our greatest musical triumphs.

Owing to the generosity of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Maryland, rehearsals and concert preparations have resumed on a normal schedule. Performances take place in Figge Theater at Georgetown Preparatory School in exchange for the brass ensemble playing graduation and the faculty holiday celebration.

Rehearsals are normally on a biweekly basis, more frequently as concerts approach. The NIHCO currently meets on Wednesday evenings. At this time, the NIHCO performs five or six concerts per year. There are also numerous opportunities for musicians to form and play in chamber ensembles, both informal and concert groups.

The NIH Community Orchestra prides itself on being a relaxed, friendly environment where we believe in the philosophy that "making music is wonderful therapy--it should never be a reason for having therapy."

The NIH Community Orchestra is affiliated with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland and is supported by the NIH Recreation and Welfare Association (R&W). Proceeds from its concerts benefit the charities of NIH and, as a club organization of the R&W; it is a tax-exempt charitable organization.

Numerous active chamber ensembles have also formed from its members including a brass ensemble, a flute ensemble, a string quartet, and other combinations of wind/string instruments that present free performances at local libraries, nursing homes, BWI airport, and other concert venues. In a concert in July of 2012 many small ensembles performed in addition to the whole orchestra, including some original compositions of orchestra members.