The capacity crowd at Beall Hall Friday night was only satisfied after not one, but two standing ovations for Joan Szymko’s new work “Shadow & Light”, performed beautifully by the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble, the Eugene Concert Orchestra and soloists Marietta Simpson, Sarah Joanne Davis and Brendan Tuohy, under the direction of artistic director and conductor Diane Retallack.
Portland-based Szymko has created something tangibly warm and accessible, giving voice to the duality between caretaking and caregiving, between receiving support, and losing a loved one, to Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Subtly, with dignity, the artist combs through dialogue and poems, disparate threads that tie together thematically into three distinct phases of the disease and its effects:
Part I: The Cloud of Forgetting, explores the brash realization that something is amiss, as patient delves into the cacophony of the diagnostic whorl, and is confronted with the cold realization that Alzheimer’s has settled into his or her life.
Spoken dialogue, voiced by Lexy Wellman and Robert Killen, is cached within the lush score. These lines, trapped in amber, arrest the listener with their honesty. Bassist Milo Fultz offers counterpoint to the language, humanizing and elevating it with a kind of approachability and ease.
In “Memory Aids”, Mezzo-soprano Mariette Simpson’s haunting, reserved portrayal of a woman who clings to the routines of daily life in order to appear normal, enough, is unforgettable.
Part 2: Uncontainable Night, delves into the pain of losing, slowly, bit by bit, memory, relationships, independence. It’s about fear, yes, and the exquisite strength it takes to hang on every single day. And in “Sundowning” – a section about the fears and challenges of looking after someone when they have begun to need greater care, when they’ve begun to wander restless in the night, confused, is heart wrenching, with tenor Brendan Tuohy and soprano Sarah Davis voicing the caregiver’s desperate plea for just a little respite.
Szymko has created a work here that is more than a piece of music. It has a theatrical quality, as it weaves together, seemingly effortlessly, language ranging from quotes from patients and their loved ones, to poems by Emily Dickinson, Ranier Maria Rilke, to Corinthians.
Part III: I and Thou transcends, richly exposing the warm embrace within the not knowing, within the stillness of love that persists without words, without cognitive networks.
In “Love Bears All Things”, cellist David Straka is a triumph in a solo that brings everything home.
Musically, the work is cinematic and lush, enjoyable. For average audiences, our access to contemporary classical music is through film scores, and “Shadow & Light” bears that rewarding countenance that draws us in.
Szymko has captured here the deep, persistent love a mother feels for her child, and translates it to the shifting, gravelly terrain of coping with a loved one’s unraveling brain.
Underneath that work, the day-to-day, the challenges, there is hope, and real beauty: What’s left behind, she finds, is the purity of connection, the elegant, elusive parasympathetic offerings between people who simply love each other, even if they can’t remember who, what, where or why.
This piece should be played everywhere.