"Shadow & Light" world premiere gives voice to those afflicted with Alzheimer's

Shadow & Light” world premiere in April - presented by Eugene Vocal Arts with Eugene Concert Orchestra, Conducted by Diane Retallack


The Eugene Concert Choir, Diane Retallack, director, was awarded a $125,000 grant from the Fred W. Fields Fund of Oregon Community Foundation Creative Heights initiative to commission a choral-orchestral work by nationally-recognized Oregon composer Joan Szymko that gives voice to those affected by Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.


Szymko met with patients, families, and caregivers, arranged in partnership with the Oregon Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. She was both emotionally and creatively impacted by the intimate narratives regarding the challenges, frustrations, despair, hopes, courage, determination, acceptance, and moments of light and tenderness. She has worked tirelessly over the last year to translate the stories she's collected into music. Artistic director and conductor Diane Retallack worked closely with the composer along the creative journey to develop this groundbreaking work. Both Szymko and Retallack were equally struck and delighted with the resulting piece of music. What was intended to be a 30-minute work burgeoned into a 60-minute masterwork for choir, orchestra, and soloists with thrilling, demanding movements.


The libretto comprises existing poetry and texts carefully selected by Szymko. The words of Emily Dickenson open the piece:


I felt a cleaving in my mind

As if my brain had split;

I tried to match it, seam by seam,

But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to join

Unto the thought before,

But sequence ravelled out of reach

Like balls upon a floor.

The music and lyrics are complemented by spoken lines from on and off stage, such as this from the first section of the work that leads into the words of poet Gail White:

Speaker: You have dementia, probably of the Alzheimer's type.

Mezzo: This is the paper that gives the date.

This is the kettle to boil the water.

This is a china breakfast plate.

This is a note to call my daughter.

“I'm honored,” says Retallack, “to have been in any way responsible for the addition of this work to the choral repertoire. The music...it is hard to put into words—it takes my breath away.”


The world premiere of the work will be presented in a triumphant and passionate performance by the select chamber choir of the Eugene Concert Choir organization, Eugene Vocal Arts with Eugene Concert Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Retallack in April, 2016 at Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon. The performance will be professionally recorded for wider distribution with both audio and video.


The entire project has been captured by AO Films for a documentary that follows Retallack and Szymko on their artistic journey of the creation of the new work, Shadow & Light, and explores the themes of this musical translation of the experience of what memory loss does to change the individual and their loved ones forever.


Retallack possesses an intimate understanding of the subject matter, through experiences with her mother and grandmother, both of whom had Alzheimer’s. Her desire was to create this artistic work with beauty, sensitivity, and dignity, and to provide an artistic outlet for shared experience and catharsis for musicians and patrons alike. “Individuals with memory loss are among us, in increasing numbers, and we need to incorporate them into the fabric of our society,” says Retallack.


“The Creative Heights initiative is a $4 million, three-year investment by OCF in arts and culture organizations around Oregon. Creative Heights grants recognize the need for arts and culture organizations throughout the state to test new ideas, stretch their creative capacity, and provide unique opportunities for Oregonians to experience innovative arts and culture” – Oregon Community Foundation press release.


A total of 13 Creative Heights grants were awarded across the state in the first year, 2014. The Eugene Concert Choir is the only organization in Eugene to receive an award. This project represents the first commission for the Eugene Concert Choir and will add a significant work to choral repertoire by acclaimed composer, Joan Szymko.


Additional grant funding for the project to the tune of $25,449, was awarded by the Oregon Cultural Trust. Of the 84 grants awarded to cultural organizations, the award to Eugene Concert Choir was one of the largest of those for performing arts recipients. “We are extremely grateful to members of the legislature for giving us the flexibility to provide deeper support to the groups who ensure Oregon's cultural vitality,” said Oregon Cultural Trust Executive Director Brian Rogers. “The increased funds will allow them to have an even greater impact on creating the quality of life we Oregonians expect and appreciate.”


Joan Szymko (pronounced: SHIM-koh) (b.1957) is a composer and conductor from the Pacific Northwest. With a catalog of over 100 published choral works, her music is performed by ensembles across North America and abroad. She is in her 20th season as the Artistic Director of Aurora Chorus (Portland, Oregon), and she recently joined the Music School faculty at Portland State University.


Eugene Vocal Arts is the select, 40-voice chamber choir of the Eugene Concert Choir organization. Founded by Diane Retallack, celebrating more than 30 seasons, the choir focuses on sophisticated and challenging repertoire from the Renaissance to the present. As a testament to its artistry, the ensemble was invited to perform at the 2010 American Choral Directors Association Northwest Conference in Seattle, representing the finest choral ensembles in the six-state region.

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