Composer Robert S. Cohen has tackled plenty of difficult themes, including eternity, homeland security and the biblical story of creation.
Still, when an Eastern Pennsylvania arts group commissioned him to write a choral work about Alzheimer's patients, the task felt daunting, even though Mr. Cohen had watched his stepmother suffer with the illness.
"I called Herschel. He's a fantastic librettist and a fine composer," Mr. Cohen said in a telephone interview from his home in Upper Montclair, N.J.
Herschel Garfein, who often collaborates with Mr. Cohen, wrote the libretto for the opera "Elmer Gantry," which garnered a Grammy this year for best contemporary classical composition. Mr. Garfein suggested that members of the Susquehanna Valley Chorale post stories about Alzheimer's patients they knew on a blog that was part of the choir's website.
"I think in theatrical terms, which is why Herschel and I seem to work so well together. We think more in terms of character rather than abstract soloists," Mr. Cohen said.
Chorale members posted 80 funny and sad anecdotes. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Garfein used them while working on the piece for eight months, finishing in 2009.
This weekend, the 90-member Bach Choir of Pittsburgh presents "Time Remembered/Time Forgotten" and performs the Pittsburgh premiere of "Alzheimer's Stories," a melodic 30-minute oratorio that dramatizes how the illness affects families. Thomas W. Douglas, artistic director of the Bach Choir for the past eight years, will conduct the choir and a 14-member orchestra. Throughout this season, the musical group will perform six concerts that explore how the passage of time affects people.
The first section of "Alzheimer's Stories" details the numbers associated with the illness, including 1901, the year the first patient was diagnosed, in Frankfurt, Germany. Five years later, in 1911, the condition was named after the treating doctor, Alois Alzheimer.
The second part of the work recounts patients' stories. One woman believes she is on a boat heading for Panama and holds fast to what she thinks is a ship railing. A father remembers his hell-raising days in the Navy.
To write the oratorio's third part, which focuses on care givers, Mr. Cohen drew on a poignant experience recounted by a member of the chorale. On a visit to a nursing home, the choir member encountered a gentleman he did not know. The man, who had Alzheimer's, said, "Sing to me. Sing anything."
From personal experience with his stepmother, Mr. Cohen knew that the part of the brain that holds music memory is one of the last things Alzheimer's patients lose.
"There are Alzheimer's patients who don't know their name, don't know their children or where they are, but if you ask them to sit down at the piano or some other instrument, they can play it or sing it. It's amazing," the composer said.
Minutes after the first performance of "Alzheimer's Stories" concluded in 2009, Mr. Cohen was backstage talking to people. Suddenly, a tall man who was built like a linebacker ran toward him and hugged him. He told the composer, "My mother has Alzheimer's, and now I feel I can deal with it," Mr. Cohen recalled.
"That was the greatest compliment I could receive. What more could anybody ask? My whole focus on art has always been to move people," the composer said.
The concert program includes "Song of Democracy," a 1957 work by American composer Howard Hanson that was inspired by a Walt Whitman poem. Two new pieces by Diane Benjamin called "Are We Not Your Family?'' were commissioned by the Portland Men's Gay Choir. That choral work focuses on gay people who are unable to visit their partners in hospitals.
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648.