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'Alzheimer's Stories' hopes to strike lasting chord

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
Composer Robert S. Cohen, who created 'Alzheimer's Stories'

Composer Robert S. Cohen admits writing a piece of music about an illness that has no survivors is “a tough sell.”

But he also says the growing number of cases of Alzheimer's disease has created a public where “everyone knows someone who has it or someone who has had to treat someone with it.” That reality has created an audience — or a potential one — for the work.

The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh presents his “Alzheimer's Stories” Saturday and Sunday as part of its season-opening “Time Remembered/Time Forgotten” concert at Eastminster Church in East Liberty.

It is part of a program that looks at love and responsibility in a number of different ways, says Thomas Wesley Douglas, artistic director of the choir. Besides Cohen's work, the concert also includes Howard Hanson's “Songs of Democracy,” which deals with individual roles in government, and an a cappella version of Sergei Rachmaninoff's “Vocalise” that deals with the “family of mankind.”

But the Cohen work is the centerpiece of the concert, and Douglas hopes listeners are not put off by what seems to be an emotion-testing work. He says it is more “rousing” than “sobering” in the way it deals with the love that is shared between Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers.

The work is in three sections of about 10 minutes each. The first deals with the discovery of the disease by Germany's Dr. Alois Alzheimer, the second is a pastiche of a number of individual stories, and the third is offered to help caregivers find hope in what appears hopeless.

Baritone and mezzo-soprano soloists portray different roles in each section, giving the work a theatrical nature.

The composer says he never thinks of writing a piece of music without having some sort of human story in mind, so all of his music has some element of theatricality.

Cohen says the work dates back to 2007 when a donor, who wanted to stay anonymous, gave the Susquehanna Valley Chorale in Eastern Pennsylvania a large gift to commission a work on the subject.

The composer, who lives in New Jersey, says he was frightened at first by the task, but then began to like the idea. The work, with libretto by Herschel Garfein, was premiered in 2009.

“Alzheimer's Stories” has been performed seven or eight times this year, Cohen says, and has three more coming up in the fall.

One of those will be at Cleveland's Severance Hall, where it will be performed in November as part of a conference on the disease, he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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