Lunch with Scott: Stan and Judy Chen

MUSIC THE FOOD OF LOVE: Musicians and medicos Judy and Stan Chen at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Simone De Peak
MUSIC THE FOOD OF LOVE: Musicians and medicos Judy and Stan Chen at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Simone De Peak

FROM the moment he read her name badge, Stanley Chen’s heart sang. It was at a large gathering of musical medicos in 1993, and Stanley saw the young woman standing there. She was just what he had been looking for.

Judy Kermode. North Fitzroy. Cello.

Perfect. He really needed a cellist for his ensemble. And as luck would have it, he lived just near her in Melbourne.

“We had every single instrument, but no bass player, no bass instrument,” he recounts as we sit in Hamilton’s Fortunate Son cafe. “I was desperate to find a cello player somewhere.

“So my opening line to her was, ‘Hi, my name’s Stan. Fancy playing some chamber music?’. Which is the worst pick up line of all time!”   

She initially wasn’t that excited by the invitation.

“They weren’t very striking,” Judy says bluntly of her first impressions of this guy.

“Well, we’re being totally candid here!,” laughs Stanley, with nothing but a glass of water to comfort him.

“Because we basically met very briefly at this three-day event,” explains Judy, “and there were so many other people …  ”

“Plus I’m a woodwind player,” offers Stanley. “String players don’t associate with woodwind players.”

“You don’t really talk to them,” concedes Judy. “But I remembered he was quite nice and I was happy to go and play chamber music.”

And they’ve been playing together ever since, on stage and in life. Both Stanley and Judy Chen have been not just feeding souls with music but helping bodies heal, with their careers as doctors.

DOCTOR DUET: Judy and Stan Chen talk of their love of medicine and music. Picture: Simone De Peak

DOCTOR DUET: Judy and Stan Chen talk of their love of medicine and music. Picture: Simone De Peak

AS the daughter of a surgeon and a nurse, Judy Kermode was born into medicine. She grew up in Perth but has connections to the earliest days of Newcastle. A forebear on her father’s side was John Tucker, a convict who was the first government storekeeper in the settlement.

Music was prominent in Judy Kermode’s childhood. She learnt piano from about the age of six, progressing through the grades until she sat for the Associate in Music, Australia exam. She also learnt the cello, and from the age of 12 played in amateur orchestras.

Yet at the end of high school, she enrolled to study medicine. Music was to remain a hobby - and a passion.

“I was very glad I didn’t do music, because I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed life so much as a music teacher,” she muses. By her own assessment, Judy was “never professional standard” as a musician.

Once she finished her degree, Judy Kermode worked in Perth before heading to Britain for a couple of years. She worked in a large hospital in London, tolerating the jibes about being a colonial and absorbing lessons in anaesthetics. She returned to Perth and trained as an anaesthetist.  

“When the flurry of getting the patients to sleep was over and the surgery had started, often there was time to sit and chat,” Judy recalls. “And these anaesthetists were really nice people. They were grounded, they had a life outside. They had a sense of humour.”

Yet Judy also loved the role of the anaesthetist, and still does.

“You can do so much for a patient at a really critical time of their journey in hospital,” she says. “You have to see them beforehand, you have to make them aware of what’s going to happen, you have to try and reassure them, you have to tell them what the risks are of their anaesthetic, what you’re going to do, you try to make their passage through that short time as pleasant for them as possible, you try to make them comfortable afterwards.

“It’s extremely satisfying to do that. Not many people have a job where you really are just helping people all the time. I know that sounds saccharine. But you are!”

Medicine took Judy Kermode to Melbourne, to specialise as a paediatric anaesthetist. But music led her to Stan. Or, as we’ve learnt, Stan to her. 

WORK AND PLEASURE: Musical medicos Judy and Stan Chen, with Ian Wright (left).

WORK AND PLEASURE: Musical medicos Judy and Stan Chen, with Ian Wright (left).

AS STANLEY Chen tells it, he had been conceived in Phnom Penh, born in Hong Kong in 1957 and migrated to Australia from Saigon in 1965. His father was a bank manager, and the family moved around the Asian cities. Yet it was the escalation of the Vietnam War that brought the family to Sydney. 

At primary school, Stan studied the recorder and stuck with it. He also went to piano lessons, but “I sent several teachers completely spare, because of my attitude or lack thereof. And I really regret that, because music is so central now, but I recognise I lack that core basic training.” 

What tipped Stan Chen into a love of classical music was one wet weekend when he was a teenager, listening to his mother’s record collection. As the stylus danced across the grooves, the music was etched into his soul. The piece that hooked him was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1.   

“I can still remember it, the tingles, ‘Wow, this is just amazing’,” he says.

But tingles don’t pay the bills. Just like Judy, Stan pursued medicine. He did surgical training in Newcastle for three years. He was in the midst of an operation at Wallsend hospital when the earthquake shook the city in 1989. 

“We thought a mine had exploded underneath the hospital,” he recalls, before recounting how they shielded the patient, whose abdomen was open, from falling ceiling plaster. The surgical team successfully finished the operation. 

While in Newcastle, Stan and a muso-medico friend formed a baroque music group. Stan was playing the recorder but realised he was barely heard.  

“I got sick of that and thought I’d find a real instrument, one that could hold its own and make a proper noise,” he says. Stan Chen chose the oboe. 

When the ensemble scored a gig at a winery at Jerrys Plains, Stan decided the group needed to be more assertive. He renamed the chamber orchestra The Barbarians.

“We wanted to break away from that nice, genteel mode and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to come at you, and come at you hard,” Stan explains. “We took our name and inspiration from the Barbarians Rugby Club.” 

Stan, who played rugby as a younger bloke, says he modelled the musical group on the team’s approach –bring in outsiders, minimal practice, stare a big challenge in the face, and launch into it.   

“It’s been our credo to go, ‘Alright, it’s a bit difficult this bit of music. Who cares? Let’s give it a go. Into it! Give it a go!’. Some say we ruck and maul.”

The group’s name has raised a few eyebrows and prompted concert program writers to devise alternatives more befitting a chamber orchestra, lest it scare the patrons. But the name has also attracted a different type of patron. Once, when The Barbarians’ name was plastered on a poster promoting a hospital benefit concert, a bunch of punks and heavy rockers turned up.

“So the name does get us into a spot of bother at times,” Stan laughs.

Judy and Stan Chen talk about their medical careers and musical passions. Picture: Simone De Peak

Judy and Stan Chen talk about their medical careers and musical passions. Picture: Simone De Peak

When Stan’s career led him to Melbourne for a couple of years, the Barbarians kept musically rucking and mauling. Indeed, when Stan met Judy, the group came to Melbourne for a tour – “and to check out the new Barbarian.”

“But hey, she plays the piano, she plays cello, what more could you want?,” he says. “Oh, and she makes the best rehearsal cakes.”

Judy and Stanley married and moved to Newcastle in late 1995. Through the course of two children – Emily, who is studying medicine in Sydney, and Christopher, who is doing his HSC – The Barbarians remain part of the Chens’ lives. Stan, an upper abdominal surgeon, and Judy believe music make them better doctors.  

“Particularly in surgery, one of the areas that can be a little bit ragged is creativity and individual expression,” Stan explains. “Music is an outlet for that. I go back to work feeling energised and enthusiastic.”

“It’s really a fantastic part of your life if you can play music, because you leave your work cares totally behind you when you sit down and read music and play music,” Judy adds. 

Portrait of an anaesthetist, cellist, pianist, mother and proud Barbarian: Judy Chen. Picture: Simone De Peak

Portrait of an anaesthetist, cellist, pianist, mother and proud Barbarian: Judy Chen. Picture: Simone De Peak

The Barbarians are rehearsing for a concert, “Mozart Does Prague”, on November 18 at Newcastle Museum. Well, kind of rehearsing. These are busy people. But music will always play a major role for this couple. 

“We couldn’t live without it really,” says Stan.

“We might not always be able to play,” counters Judy. “When we’re in our 90s, you mightn’t be able to blow an oboe anymore.”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Stan smiles. “Pick up something else!”