When 16-year-old Kyle Levy arrived at the Kimmel Center last October, he was simply a high school musician on a field trip with bandmates to watch a rehearsal of the Philadelphia Orchestra. An hour later, he was stunned to find himself onstage, playing on a brand-new cello created just for him, under the baton of conductor Nathalie Stutzmann.
The remarkable afternoon, masterminded by Make-A-Wish Philadelphia, Delaware & Susquehanna Valley, was the highlight of an extremely difficult year for the young cellist, who is a junior at Central Bucks South High School. One morning last February, he awoke with shooting leg pain that had kept him awake for most of the night. A few recurrences and a slew of hospital visits later, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
As he recounts the story, Kyle doesn’t seem like a young man who spent most of 2019 battling a life-threatening illness. He greets visitors with a shy but infectious smile, describing even the most frightening moments of his medical ordeal with an air of startled wonder, rather than distress.
“I’m not sure if it was just shock, but I don't remember being that devastated by the news,” he said, leaning back on the couch in the living room of his family’s Bucks County home. “The classic sunken heart when you hear the words, ‘You have cancer’ — that didn’t really happen to me, to be honest. Positivity goes a long way, I guess.”
Kyle’s unflappable optimism was contagious, according to his parents, Robert and Janet; it helped them to stay hopeful during the darkest of times this past year. “It’s been terrible,” Janet admitted. “But Kyle’s a vibrant, articulate, intelligent, talented, kindhearted kid. What got us through it was him.”
Throughout his regimen of chemotherapy and T-cell therapy, Kyle kept up with as many of his usual activities as he could manage: attending Central Bucks South, practicing on the rented cello he played in the school orchestra, and earning a first-degree black belt in karate — a discipline that he credits for his upbeat attitude.
“I’ve been doing karate for 13 years now,” he said. “We have this creed that we say at the end of every single class: ‘Modesty, courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance, and indomitable spirit.’ I guess eventually those words ingrained themselves into me. Which isn’t a bad thing.”
In June, a hospital social worker suggested to the Levy family that they should contact the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants life-changing wishes for children with a critical illness who have reached the age of 2½ and are younger than 18 at the time of referral.
The Levys were initially taken aback by the notion, assuming, as do many families, that the organization’s wishes are intended solely for terminally ill children.
Not so, said Dennis Heron, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Philadelphia, Delaware & Susquehanna Valley.
“Parents tend to throw their hands up in the air and say, ‘Whoa, whoa, we’re going to beat this disease. We know about Make-A-Wish, that’s for the dying child,’” he said. “That’s totally inaccurate today; 75-to-80% of the kids who are granted a wish go on to beat their disease and live a full, happy adult life.” The wish takes a child’s mind away from being probed and prodded by the medical community, he said. “That’s the power” of it.
When deciding on a wish, Kyle asked for a cello, he said, because he “wanted my wish to be something that lasted. A trip is over in a week; I wanted something that would last a lifetime.”
While the Levy family assumed that Make-A-Wish would simply deliver a cello to their home, the organization had a more elaborate plan in mind. “We try to make [the granting of a wish] as magical an experience as we possibly can,” Heron explained. “It’s not just going to be a couple of volunteers knocking on the front door, handing over a musical instrument and waving as they leave. That would be very anticlimactic.”
Kyle’s afternoon at the Kimmel Center was anything but.
That day, the orchestra from Central Bucks South was ushered into Verizon Hall to watch the Philadelphia Orchestra’s rehearsal. Backstage, Make-A-Wish staffers waited with Kyle’s parents and sister, Allie, for the big, surprise moment when Kyle would be asked to come onstage. There, he’d take a seat, be handed his new cello and invited to play along with the orchestra (whose members were in on the reveal, as was school orchestra director Scott Hensil, who had already been planning an excursion for his student musicians).
The cello was custom-made by the Illinois-based company StringWorks. Its founder, former Los Angeles Opera cellist Todd French, was on hand to present Kyle with his gorgeous new instrument. Nervous but thrilled, Kyle took his place in the spotlight to play Stephen Melillo’s hymn, “That Which Remains,” which the school orchestra had been rehearsing for its own concert the following night.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t mess up,” Kyle recalled with a laugh. “I was really nervous I was going to play some wrong note because the Philadelphia Orchestra never plays a wrong note.”
“It was very moving,” said Philadelphia Orchestra CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “Music can give voice to thoughts and feelings that words alone cannot, and that’s what you saw happening with Kyle. It really showed what a vital and positive force in the world that music is.”
Following the ceremony, assistant principal cellist Yumi Kendall offered Kyle a spontaneous lesson, sitting down with him backstage for 10 minutes. “Kyle is an eager, benevolent learner,” Kendall said. “He’s so openhearted. We talked about how the cello is like a human body, but the bow is like the breath that gives us voice and life.”
The cello soon became an integral part of Kyle’s recovery process. While undergoing chemo, he would practice in an atrium at CHOP, where the music drifted from his second-floor perch all the way up to the seventh floor. Hospital staff and fellow patients would take time out to listen. Kyle pulled out his phone to show off a touching photo of a young child, no more than 2 or 3 years old, raptly watching him play in hospital robes with an IV attached to his arm.
“The cello is a mellow instrument, kind of like me,” he said. “It’s not that excitable. It’s really relaxing to play.”