Dr. Richard J. Nelson is ending 35 years of medical practice on a high note.
The Salt Lake specialist in internal medicine plans a swan song for his patients in the form of a Christmas concert.On his 65th birthday, Dec. 23, the Jay Welch Chorale with guest soloists will perform music by Nelson, as he leaves medicine and enters a new profession as a composer. The 7 p.m. concert will be at the Old 10th Ward Meeting House, 4th South and 8th East.
"It's a little present to my patients who I want to better understand why I am changing jobs," said Nelson. "At age 65, you don't have as much energy, creativity and time left as you do at age 25. So if I am going to know more about my craft, I'd better start now.
"I'd like to be able to write things that when people look at them they say, `It certainly isn't Beethoven or Bach, but it is well-crafted.' "
Music has been Nelson's hobby and love since age 8.
"He has always been serious about his music. He practiced all the time. When he was in high school, he used to take the front off our upright piano and play Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor as loud as possible," said his brother, Claron.
Sometimes, he revealed, those practice sessions came at 6 a.m.
Nelson also studied the organ with late Tabernacle organist Alexander Schreiner. He jokes, "I am one of the students Alexander Schreiner never speaks about."
Music, in fact, is the only career Nelson really considered more than medicine. But when he was starting out in the late 1940s, there was a greater need for doctors than composers. The pay for doctors was also better, he says.
While Nelson admits there aren't too many highlights in day-to-day medicine, a review of his career shows many illustrious moments.
He served as part-time commissioner of the Salt Lake City Health Department from May 1954 to July 1966. He recommended a full-time successor and consolidation of health services into what became the Salt Lake City-County Health Department.
At LDS Hospital, Nelson played a major role in transforming it into a tertiary teaching institution, and helped organize the hospital's Deseret Foundation for medical research and health information.
Nelson says he has watched medicine change from a profession to a business. But his emphasis has remained on the patient. His motto has been: "The most important thing in the care of the patient is caring for the patient."
Nelson's concern that he couldn't continue to deliver the same high quality care for his patients helped prompt his retirement.
"I have always felt many doctors practice too long, and 65 isn't a bad age to stop. Some push on a few more years and that's all right," he said. "The problem is to have enough energy to keep up. You can certainly take care of patients on a day-to-day basis, but to be able to dig down deep and find the energy to do what you should really do on a moment's notice at odd hours is tough."
Two years ago Nelson moved his private practice to the Salt Lake Clinic so medical care to his patients wouldn't be interrupted when he retired to pursue his other love - composing.
He has written some 200 compositions in the past eight years, including orchestral chorale, piano sonatas, string quartets, and is in the process of writing an opera.
He also composed songs for his children when they were married. Last year friends and relatives received Christmas cards in the form of a cassette of his music.
Nelson has written some of his own lyrics, "but it soon became apparent that there are a vast number of marvelous poets out there who have a great way with words." The doctor has composed song cycles to the words of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg and others.
"I am probably just beginning to learn the craft of composition. I'm a long way from Brahms but before I die I'd like to be a little bit closer."