Unfinished concert to commemorate a life cut short

Chanlan Lee of Gladwyne was a standout violinist at the Nelly Berman Music School in Haverford. But Chanlan's musical voice is stilled. He died of viral encephalitis Dec. 19 after a month-long coma. His mother Catherine Lee holds a photo of Chanlan and his violin. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

There is meaning in the unfinished life, says music school director Nelly Berman. She and her young pupils are about to demonstrate how.

On Jan. 29, with violins tucked under chins, hands poised over piano keys, and bows dancing across cello strings, boys and girls will take the stage in a special recital at the Haverford School on the Main Line.

But after a few minutes, each performer will walk away, leaving his or her piece unfinished.

The unusual performance is meant to represent the life of Chanlan Lee, a gifted young violin student who died in 2008 from viral encephalitis when he was 8.

"This is to show our support for Chanlan, who was just beginning and did not finish his life," Berman said. "It is a good deed for all people to remember this beautiful child that doesn't exist anymore."

While the concert marks the sadness of a life cut short, it also sets the stage for others to achieve.

Roughly two-thirds of the proceeds will go toward scholarships for gifted pupils at the Nelly Berman School of Music in Haverford. The rest is expected to go to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where Chanlan was treated, in the form of research money to combat encephalitis.

The boy's life was commemorated at two previous concerts, but next month's event is the first to include Children's Hospital. The idea came from Berman and the music school's board, said Michael D. Kearney, a board member.

"We thought that if we combined forces" with Children's, "we could raise much more money," Kearney said.

Children's Hospital spokeswoman Rachel Salis-Silverman confirmed that the school had applied to partner with the hospital for fund-raising and that acceptance was imminent.

Berman said that while there is precedent for musicians playing a symphony to leave the stage one by one, as written in the score, she knew of no previous instance in which performers went onstage alone and played part of a piece to symbolize a loss.

The idea for the concert format, "the unfinished life," was originally that of her daughter Elena, Berman said. Elena Berman is the music school's associate director.

Chanlan, whose family lives in Villanova, contracted strep throat Nov. 25, 2008, and quickly became gravely ill. By the next day, he was in Children's Hospital and had fallen into a coma; he died a little more than three weeks later without regaining consciousness.

"Unfortunately, we don't have adequate treatments to kill the virus," pediatric epilepsy specialist Nicholas Abend said at the time. Abend attended a memorial concert in 2009 for Chanlan.

Near the end of that event, the boy's mother, Catherine Chan, then 41, prostrated herself on the stage floor to express her gratitude to a stunned audience. She explained that she was kowtowing - an Asian demonstration of respect.

She said Wednesday she likely would speak at the Jan. 29 recital.

Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain caused by infection, often viral.

The inflammation is tricky to diagnose and begins as a serious illness, as it did in Chanlan's case. Researchers have identified more than 100 separate causes.

Even with treatment, mortality rates range from 10 percent to 30 percent of cases, according to Ava Easton, chief executive officer of the Encephalitis Society in Great Britain. The victims are often children.

What causes an infection to blossom into encephalitis is not clear. Easton said research about the disease was "extremely important" because little was known about the effect of the disease on patients and their families.

The effect on Chanlan's family was profound. Two years after she spent 24 days at her son's hospital bedside, Catherine Chan said she relives the agony in her dreams.

"I wake up and still think I am in the waiting room," said Chan, who along with her husband runs a restaurant in Philadelphia's Chinatown. The disease, she said, is cruel because it strikes so suddenly.

She said her son's death has caused her outlook to change radically. The trappings of success she once chased - a bigger house, a better job - have no meaning for her now, she said.

"I learned to slow down, to appreciate things," she said. "When you see a flower, look at every little petal of it. You don't know if you can come back tomorrow and look at it again."


Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.