Light amid darkness

Oregon Repertory Singers perform Portland composer Joan Szymko’s oratorio inspired by people confronting Alzheimer’s dementia

This is what we fear…
Nothing to think with
Nothing to love or link with

From “Aubade” by Philip Larkin, excerpted in Shadow & Light.

When Eugene Concert Choir and Vocal Arts director Diane Retallack approached Joan Szymko in 2014 to write a new piece for choir about Alzheimer’s dementia, the Portland composer faced three challenges. First, she had no friends or close family members with the disease. Second, though she was an award-winning composer who’d written more than 100 choral works, it would be a much bigger piece than she’d ever attempted. Finally, she worried that it would be a depressing work — “a horror story.” 

But after spending two years researching and composing music and libretto about the heartbreaking subject, Szymko discovered a way to cope with the epic scale it demanded. And she also found that it’s possible to find hope and even peace at the end of an Alzheimer’s journey.

Shadow and Light is a touching and hopeful look at the effects of Alzheimer’s,” says Christine Meadows, who sings one of the central solo parts in Oregon Repertory Singers’ Portland premiere of Szymko’s 2016 work this weekend. “[Szymko] captures the huge range of emotions and experiences that many of us have journeyed through with our loved ones.”

Universal Story

Szymko overcame her first challenge by devoting eight months to learning about the condition, which afflicts nearly 50 million people worldwide and is the sixth leading killer of Americans, according to She read extensively (from science writing to memoir to poetry), and interviewed people with Alzheimer’s and their families and caregivers and medical specialists. People “fear that disease more than cancer,” she found. “There’s a universal need to connect, and they fear losing connection” to family and friends, who last year collectively provided an estimated 18.5 billion hours of unpaid care for them. 

Szymko expanded the concept of her piece to include stories about caregivers and family members. “In our culture of invisibility of aging people and the people who take care of them, mostly women, I wanted those people to felt seen and heard,” she said. But that decision and the other information she gathered persuaded her that she needed more than the assigned 30 minutes to tell the stories of multiple journeys. Her oratorio swelled to 70 minutes, and the process consumed two years of her life, forcing her to take time off from her teaching at Portland State University and Aurora Chorus, which she’s directed since 1993. 

“My main concern was to tell a universal story, so anyone in the audience affected by it could recognize themselves,” she explained. But because “there’s no one Alzheimer’s story,” how to do that with a condition that she found affects everyone — patients, families, caregivers — differently? 

First, along with quotes from patients and their loved ones, she included words that transcended the specifics of the disease, including hymns, scripture, her own words, and poetry by Larkin, Emily Dickinson and Rainer Maria Rilke. 

Composer Joan Szymko. Photo courtesy of the composer.
Composer Joan Szymko. Photo courtesy of the composer.

“I decided to embrace what I do really well,” Szymko explained, “the short story form.” None of the three-part oratorio’s 16 movements runs longer than 8 minutes. Making a big work out of several smaller pieces solved her second challenge of creating an unprecedentedly capacious composition for her, and her first for full orchestra. 

Shadow and Light covers a range of experiences, including patients’ confusion and families’ anxiety and stress. “She comes at it from a lot of different angles,” said ORS artistic director Ethan Sperry, including “what the diagnosis is like, what’s it like to be a caregiver, to be a child with a parent with Alzheimers.”

But the Alzheimer’s journey isn’t exclusively a bleak one. Loved ones encounter moments of unexpected joy and even humor along the rough road, where clarity momentarily returns or strength grows. Families find profound ways of maintaining love and even growing through the challenges. “The movements that are most wrenching for listeners are followed by moments of respite, and a big exhale where we’re able to laugh at some aspects of the reality” of Alzheimer’s, Szymko said. As memory fades, ultimately, some caregivers and patients learn to live in the present moment — and find moments of joy and resolution.

The oratorio’s 2016 premiere at Eugene’s Hult Center earned Eugene Vocal Arts Chamber Choir the American Prize’s 2016-17 Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music.

Joan Szymko, Ethan Sperry, Naomi LaViolette. Photo by Paige Baker.
Joan Szymko, Ethan Sperry, Naomi LaViolette. Photo by Paige Baker.

Solace and Connection

“You’d think this would be a depressing piece to listen to,” Sperry wrote in a Facebook post, “BUT IT’S NOT! It certainly has its hard moments (the Shadow in the title), but it does an amazing job of capturing the Light that is still available to us as humans facing this horrible disease with our loved ones.”  

Sperry, who also heads the choral programs at Portland State University (where his colleague Szymko also taught), said that a few ORS members whose families are affected by Alzheimer’s asked to be excused from the performance because they weren’t sure they could handle the emotions it would summon. And to sing the crucial soloist role, he asked his PSU colleague, opera singer and teacher Meadows, whose father died of the disease. “It’s just as easy to appreciate if you’ve never heard a piece of classical music in your life,” he said. 

This isn’t the choir’s first journey into the issue. In 2017, ORS, which recently won the American Prize in Choral Performance for its 2018 album Shadow on the Stars, also worked with its accompanist Naomi LaViolette to preserve and sing the music of Portland composer Steve Goodwin.

Continuing Journeys

The two-year journey of creating Shadow and Light left Szymko “emotionally wiped out,” she said. But she hopes to extend the oratorio’s own reach, rescoring it for smaller forces to make it affordable for community choirs and others to produce it.

Composer Joan Szymko conducting. Photo courtesy of the composer.
Composer Joan Szymko conducting. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Szymko hopes that Shadow and Light might help people emotionally cope with trying times. “My mission as an artist and composer is to connect with listeners and singers and open those places that are shut — to make people feel something,” she said. “I believe that as a culture we do everything to not feel, to not be present where we are. Our phones and other distractions want to pull us away from what is in front of us. Well, this is a disease that’s right in front of us. Let’s look at it, at our own fears about dementia and death, and let’s be present with them. That’s what art does, it can look at really painful things. That human capacity to feel and be affected by beauty helps us with the hard times.”

Szymko said it especially helps to confront tough issues in a communal setting like this weekend’s concerts. “When you’re reading a book about Alzheimer’s, you’re alone. This becomes a community event — we all come together and create something so much bigger than ourselves. This is what choral music is so great at. We can go and be immersed in the beautiful sound of Oregon Repertory Singers, and to what connects us and makes us human.”

Ethan Sperry conducts an Oregon Repertory Singers rehearsal at Portland State University. Photo by Paige Baker.
Ethan Sperry conducts an Oregon Repertory Singers rehearsal at Portland State University. Photo by Paige Baker.

That emphasis on connection makes Shadow and Light “ultimately a healing work,” Szymko believes. “There’s nothing more healing than being recognized and having a climate of compassion around what you’re dealing with. I want anyone in the midst of a tragic story to see that the thing that makes us human is our ability and need to connect, that that which abides is love. ”

“Shadow and Light, an Alzheimer’s Journey”
3 PM Saturday, September 28 and Sunday, September 29. First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson Street, Portland.
Tickets or 800-838-3006. $20 – $40.
Friday evening (Sept 27) dress rehearsal open to anyone suffering from Alzheimers and their families and caregivers.

A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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About the author

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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