BENNINGTON — An internationally known virtuoso is lending her considerable musical talent to a fundraising campaign for a new cancer center at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center later this month.
Katica Illenyi of Hungary, whose talents include violin and theremin — a mysterious and misunderstood electrical instrument with an otherworldly sound — will perform at a fundraising concert in Manchester at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 29 at Southern Vermont Arts Center’s Arkell Pavilion.
The performance will raise money for the new Hoyt-Hunter Regional Cancer Center, which is due to begin construction next spring. The expanded facility, to be built next to the current Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center, will provide much-needed additional exam and treatment rooms, accommodating increased use and providing a greater level of comfort for cancer patients.
Illenyi, who also sings and dances, is regarded as one of the top 12 theremin performers ever, according to hellomusictheory.com.
The benefit comes as the Southwestern Vermont Health Care Foundation, which raises funds for the non-profit healthcare system, embarks on a $1 million fund drive as part of its “Vision 2020: A Decade for Transformation” campaign. The campaign already has raised $24 million over the past three years for the cancer center and expansion of the Kendall Emergency Department, which is under construction.
Nick Ihasz of Danby and his family, whose roots are in Hungary, are friends with Illenyi. The family is underwriting the performance and donating travel and housing expenses. SVAC is donating the 400-seat Arkell Pavilion for the evening.
“Now, she’s here touring the United States, and we thought it was a great idea if she could come and visit and put on a benefit concert,” Ihasz said.
At present, the cancer center is crowded enough that employees are using spaces that were initially designed for storage, said Dr. Matthew Vernon, the head of radiation oncology and the cancer center’s interim director. He said the region’s aging population, combined with longer life expectancy and more effective, efficient cancer treatments, have increased use.
“We wouldn’t administer chemotherapy in the atrium, but if someone needs an IV or blood, we’re doing that out in the atrium with a call button, instead of nurse with eyes on them. It’s not ideal,” Vernon said.
The new center, at a planned 18,240 square feet, will double the number of exam rooms to 12 and increase the infusion rooms to 11 — including a negative pressure room for immunocompromised patients. It will connect to the radiation oncology department and its linear accelerator, as moving it would be difficult and expensive.
“The cancer center, which was built in the early ‘90s, is very dated,” said Leslie Keefe, vice president for corporate development at the SVHC Foundation. “We’ve totally outgrown our space for medical oncology.”
“We’ve kept up with the technology,” she added, noting the recent investment in a state of the art linear accelerator for radiation treatment. “It’s the space — it’s so dated. People are getting infusions in the waiting room behind screens.”
Illenyi said she met Ihasz through her manager, when Ihasz invited her to perform at Spring Island, S.C., where he promotes the community’s concert series. They became friends, and when she performed nearby a year later, “me and my husband spent a few days together at Ihasz family’s place in Vermont,” she said. “When they visited Hungary, we spent a fantastic evening together in a famous restaurant … I played the violin for them, and we sang Hungarian notes that you can only hear there.”
While Illenyi is best known for her violin playing, she has also gained acclaim for mastering the theremin — a mysterious electronic instrument that makes an eerie, almost human voice-like sound.
Invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin (his Westernized name), the theremin is unique in many ways, most notably that the player never touches it while performing. If you’ve listened to the theme to the original “Star Trek” television series, that’s a Theremin playing the melody. You can also hear it in “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.
Illenyi’s theremin repertoire includes the theme from the film “Once upon a Time in the West.” One of her performances of that theme has garnered more than 12 million views on YouTube.
In an email, Illenyi said she’ll never forget the first time she saw a YouTube clip of Clara Rockmore, widely regarded as among the instrument’s greatest players, performing “The Swan” by Saint-Saens.
“At first, I didn’t notice that she was playing a musical instrument. I just wondered, ‘How can it be possible for somebody to sing in such a high pitch?,’” Illenyi said. “But then, I saw that she was moving her hands, and under the video, there was written the word ‘theremin.’ I Googled it immediately.”
After a sleepless night, Illenyi bought her own theremin the next day, “because I was 100 percent sure that I would be able to learn this musical instrument. Because I play the violin and I sing, too, and the theremin sounds like a human voice or a string instrument, I instantly fell in love with it.”
Gaining command of the instrument is not easy, she said.
“A theremin is very difficult to play because the sounds are in the air and the instrument has no neck, no frets, keys, etc. You can’t move if you want clear sounds. ... Still, at the beginning I tied myself to the chair so I wouldn’t move. Even a small intake of breath affects the clarity of the sound. So you have to practice a lot every day.”
Keefe said attendees are in for a very entertaining evening of music.
“She’s a virtuoso violinist and she’s incredibly multitalented,” Keefe said. “She’s a performer, she sings, and she has a varied repertoire.”
While classically trained — a clip of her playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” has more than 2 million views on YouTube — Illenyi’s performances also include music from movie scores, jazz and folk music from her native Hungary.
Tickets are $85, and include dessert and a Prosecco toast after the performance. CurATE Cafe, the restaurant at SVAC, is taking reservations for dinner before the show. Hospital President Thomas Dee and donor Susan Hunter, a cancer survivor, will offer a presentation on plans for the new facility.