Part 1: The Numbers
“Here are the numbers. 2050: 106 million people worldwide. One in 85 people worldwide.”
Anna Hamre, conductor of the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale, knew the first run-through of Bob Cohen’s “Alzheimer’s Stories” would be tough.
So she sat her chorus members down and had them listen to a recording of the piece.
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“I needed to get them to the very end, to reach the hope,” says Hamre, who will lead nearly 200 singers and instrumentalists in the oratorio Sunday, March 22, at Shaghoian Hall. It will be the 12th public performance of the work worldwide. The concert, titled “The Power of Music,” also will include works by Cohen performed by the Fresno State Chamber Singers and Concert Choir.
Though it might sound like a grim topic, “Alzheimer’s Stories,” with music by Cohen and lyrics by Herschel Garfein, manages a delicate achievement: It’s haunting yet offers a sense of optimism and joy.
The piece doesn’t downplay the ferocious impact of Alzheimer’s disease on patients, caregivers or, indeed, on a society at large that will face increasing numbers of diagnoses in years to come, particularly as the Baby Boom ages.
Yet while Alzheimer’s is considered incurable, there have been advances in treatment and detection in recent years. Most important in terms of this oratorio, research suggests that music is a powerful tool in a caregiver’s arsenal.
“Music is one of the last things to go in Alzheimer’s patients,” Cohen says. “They might not know their family, they might not know who or where they are, but in many cases if you sing them a song they can sing it back to you perfectly.”
When Hamre asked the chorus how many members had been personally affected by the disease by having a family member or friend diagnosed, about three-quarters of them raised their hands.
The oratorio, which features two soloists (Lisa Howell and Joshua Zinc) who play a number of musical-theater-style characters, is broken into three movements, the arc of which loosely mimics the progression of the disease. The first, titled “The Numbers,” charts how the number of diagnosed cases has grown since Dr. Alois Alzheimer (sung by Zinc) in 1901 diagnosed the very first patient, Auguste Deter (Howell).
At one point Howell, as Deter, sings these plaintive words: “Ich hab mich verloren. I have lost myself.”
Several chorus members told me they cried the first time they sang through the piece. But the Fresno Community Chorus prides itself on musical proficiency and a professional presence. The singers know they can’t break down during a performance because it would diminish the audience’s own ability to connect with the material.
Hamre told them: “We have to buck ourselves up. We just have to do it.”
Part 2: The Stories
“Are we on the boat to Panama? I can’t remember the names of my shipmates.”
In the second movement of “Alzheimer’s Stories,” the two soloists each play several characters with the disease: A father who has taken apart an RV wheel but now stares at the nuts and bolts like he’s never seen them before. A grandson who runs to hug his grandfather only to hear, “Who on earth is this?” A woman suddenly back in her mind on a long-ago family trip to Panama.
When Cohen was commissioned in 2007 to write the piece by the Susquehanna Valley Chorale in Lewisburg, Penn., a blog was set up on the choir’s website for singers to share personal Alzheimer’s stories. Some of those details were incorporated into the piece’s libretto.
It’s those details that make the piece so compelling. Instead of generalities, we’re confronted with real people and situations. And not all is gloomy. While some of the brief vignettes are heartbreaking, others are more light-hearted.
One character recalls his stint in the Navy, complete with the requisite drunken Hell-raising sung to a jaunty tune.
Throughout the chorus acts both as commenter on the scenes and as a group character in its own right, playing a relative who is tired of hearing the same stories again and again.
The Fresno chorus has never done something quite like “Alzheimer’s Stories” before in terms of topicality. Hamre had been itching for some creative new ways to help the group connect to the community. She asked her board members: “How do you feel about going out on a limb?”
The financial support for the concert surprised her. It’s received a number of sizable community sponsorships. But she’s still nervous about ticket sales, hoping that people will realize that “Alzheimer’s Stories” ultimately has an uplifting message.
Cohen, whose stepfather had the disease, has attended many of the performances of his piece. He isn’t surprised anymore how many audience members have a personal connection.
“Having written the piece, I’m struck that I’m a part of a community. And that what I’ve done is something that has helped people. I think this piece may be the one I’m remembered for, if I’m ever remembered everything.”
Part 3: The Caregivers
“Keep faith. They sense what they cannot show. Love and music are the last things to go.”
Celeste DeMonte’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. The third movement of the piece, which focuses on the caregivers, is especially poignant for her.
“I wish I’d heard the words of the ‘Alzheimer’s Stories’ libretto while Mom was still alive because I think I’d have benefited in how I acted toward and thought about her,” she says. “Maybe that’s my guilty hindsight, but I think I would tear out the program page with the words and hang it where I’d see it every day.”
Again, the piece offers deeply moving details: “At the end she still remembered the pearls my father gave her,” a caregiver sings. Another: “As he died, his arm lifted and his fingers looked like dancing.”
Jeff Burgstahler, the head of the steering committee for the concert, lost his mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s. For him, the third movement is crucial because it builds into a towering reminder that love and music are at the end what’s most important.
“We hope that we can raise awareness that there is hope, not just pain,” he says.
For DeMonte, she’ll always treasure this performance.
“At rehearsals I still get so overwhelmed and teary that I miss singing a few phrases,” she says. “I keep thinking it will get easier. The experience has been one of the most profound for me personally in many years of choral singing.”