Brandon Boyd will hold two saintly women close when he ascends the conductor’s podium Saturday night.
The first is his late grandmother, who loved him as a mother before dying with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.
The second, his undergraduate piano professor, who showed Boyd remarkable generosity. She died in 2020, also having suffered from dementia.
Boyd, a professor of music at the University of Missouri, will share conducting duties with Columbia Chorale leader Emily Edgington Andrews during “In the Dark and Light.” Featuring the Chorale, MU Concert Chorale and Leme Ensemble, Saturday’s concert will benefit the local chapter of Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
These two women informed Boyd’s music in immeasurable ways, guiding his heart and hands. And he knows he isn’t alone — many fathers, mothers, teachers and loved ones will loom large Saturday night, silently spurring Columbia musicians toward their songs.
“To conduct this concert is a tribute to Carol Stone Gafford, and a tribute to Delores Boyd, my grandmother,” he said. “But I know that these wonderful singers in our choir are honoring so many of their family members, too. … You know this is real life for a lot of people right now.”
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Stories in songs
The concert consists of two multi-movement pieces capturing both the stories and spiritual cries of those affected by dementia.
Composer Robert Cohen’s and librettist Herschel Garfein’s “Alzheimer’s Stories,” which Boyd will conduct, divides into three parts. Opening movement “The Numbers” traces Alois Alzheimer’s discovery of the condition that now bears his name, and recognizes the many with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis since.
The movement revolves around a German phrase translated “I have lost myself”; the music creates a purposeful sense of lostness and disorientation, Boyd said.
Movement two, “The Stories,” relays real stories of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. The choir tenderly finishes the sentences of these tales or redirects the narrative, as caregivers often do. Those interruptions are sung “in a very soft dynamic” and spirit of love, Boyd said.
The final movement, “For the Caregivers,” honors those performing demanding acts of love. Lyrics from this section lend Saturday’s concert its name: “Find those you love in the dark and light / Help them through the days and nights.”
For the caregivers
Janaire Seye knows such words by heart. The longtime Columbia Chorale member has spent the past four years as primary caregiver for her mother de ella, who has Lewy body dementia. For Seye, threads of support and understanding will weave together in a unique fashion Saturday night.
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Even before taking over her mother’s care, the Chorale was a cherished community, Seye said. Her time de ella in the ensemble runs parallel to director Andrews’ tenure de ella, and Seye served on the group’s board for a time.
When the benefit concert was proposed, pre-pandemic, Seye saw her worlds coming together and expressed a willingness to do anything to ensure it happened, she said.
Caregiving reorients a person’s entire life, Seye testified. Her mother’s needs de ella set the day’s priorities, and Seye must actively remember to apply that crucial word — care — to herself.
“I have to find ways to prioritize taking care of myself, because I’m naturally going to think of her first,” she said. “I’m going to make sure she eats before I even think about eating myself most times.”
Seye’s life as a caregiver is marked by immense love — “she’s the best thing ever,” she said of her mom — and intense demand. Because dementia expresses itself in invisible ways, those outside a caregiver’s life don’t always see what it takes.
Medical providers sometimes express surprise when Seye’s mother can’t answer questions about her health, she said. Traveling in and out of buildings, even to and from the car, presents challenges if her mother de ella physically decides she wo n’t go, she said.
And Seye doesn’t have the freedom to indulge spur-of-the-moment social invitations, she said.
Through it all, the Chorale has been “a place of relief and calm — just getting lost in the music and being able to sing and do something I enjoy,” she said.
Fellow singers treat Seye and her mom like extended family, sitting with the elder woman during concerts and, one year, even baking her a birthday cake.
“Emily’s vision and hope and goal is to make it a community. And it really is,” Seye said.
Cohen’s piece showed up at just the right time in Boyd’s life. While a graduate student at Florida State University, his choir performed “Alzheimer’s Stories” the very evening of his grandmother’s funeral. Boyd was excused from the concert, but his family encouraged him to sing as an act of healing.
Through the performance, he felt his fellow singers covering him, as with a blanket, he said.
“They all knew what I had just come from that morning. And they were all singing for me, because I don’t know if much sound came out,” Boyd said.
One particular lyric about a tiny woman in a wheelchair still reverberates today. Boyd grew emotional recalling a visit to his grandmother from her just before her death from her. He walked past a woman in a wheelchair several times before realizing it was her de ella, her appearance altered and grown frail.
And Boyd knows he wouldn’t be in position to conduct Saturday’s concert without Gafford. He credits the professor and her husband to her with every degree he holds; they eased his student debt through their ceaseless generosity from him, enabling him to keep learning.
In the early days of the pandemic, Boyd moved in with the Gaffords, helping care for Carol through the final months of her life. That commitment simply reflected what she modeled over a span of decades.
“I’ve never seen anybody show that kind of love to me” outside his family, Boyd said.
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‘Love and music are the last things to go’
Adolphus Hailstork’s “I Will Lift My Eyes,” conducted by Andrews, is Saturday’s second piece. The three-movement work unites a classical aesthetic with melodic motifs from Black spirituals, Boyd said.
Sounding notes of hope and lament, the piece quotes from Psalms 121, 13 and 23, respectively. The second movement will also sound familiar to caregivers, repeating the Biblical question “How long, O Lord?” before calling back to the first movement and the words “I will lift up mine eyes,” Boyd explained.
Expressing their wishes for Saturday night’s program, participants echoed a couplet from “Alzheimer’s Stories”: “Love and music are the last things to go. Sing anything.”
The act of music-making affirms Walk to End Alzheimer’s mission in several ways, walk manager Chris Cottle wrote in an email.
“Music has the power to awaken the senses, to evoke emotions, and music taps into our memories,” Cottle wrote. “Music therapists, who deal with patients who have dementia, see music instantly stimulate a person to recall a story from their past and reminisce about their life de ella.”
Ultimately, music delivers hope. That hope might be felt as families feel heard and understood during the program, Seye said, or as listeners respond by volunteering. Positive motion is a natural response to a concert like this.
“Music allows us to connect to our humanity in a way that nothing else can. This concert offers that,” Cottle said.
Boyd hopes his MU students won’t know dementia’s presence by the time they reach their senior adult years. But first, action must continue in the right direction.
“We have work to do. We have something to work toward… a cure for this disease,” he said.
Until then, they will sign something — a little more than anything.
Saturday’s concert is at 7 pm at Christian Fellowship Church, with a VIP reception beforehand at 6. Tickets are $20 to $25 for adults, $5 for students; a VIP ticket is $50. Learn more at http://www.choralartsallianceofmissouri.org/.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.