Saffron Restaurants reservation ‘A Song by Mahler’ combines science and music

‘A Song by Mahler’ combines science and music


Neikrug wrote ‘A Song by Mahler’, a theater piece with music about a married couple, a singer and her accompanist, who struggle with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It will be presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society on Wednesday evening in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center.

Composer Marc Neikrug talks with musicians before a rehearsal for the Philadelphia debut of his chamber opera ”A Song by Mahler” at the Kimmel Center. (Emma Lee/WHY)

“I think the emotional nature of what happens to these two characters is underscored by the science that we know,” Neikrug said. “It just happens to be using this particular disease as a vehicle and I think that’s what fascinates scientists. It’s a kind of emotional characterization of what they’re studying.”

Wednesday’s performance is the culmination of a series of programs developed by PCMS and the Penn Memory Center. The Arts on the Mind festival featured panel discussions, film screenings and workshops showcasing how music and art are used in dementia therapy.

“Art plays a role in creating connection with other people,” said Dr. Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center. “For giving meaning and maintaining a healthy mind despite illness.”

Karlawish said the human mind did not evolve to live in isolation, requiring interaction with people and environmental stimuli to stay healthy even when damaged by dementia. The arts offer a means to this end.

The use of music in dementia therapy is what initially attracted Neikrug to this story about a couple experiencing mental deterioration. Patients with brain damage who engage in music can often regain some mental functionality.

Neikrug delved into the clinical nature of music.

“I have a number of colleagues, composers, who don’t want to know anything about this. It is a taboo to think about any process that allows us to understand how music affects us,” he said.

“I actually believe that we as human animals respond to music on a biological level, on a cellular level,” he said. “It predates speech. I mean, every mother on the planet, in any language, sings a lullaby to their child. It’s meant to be soothing, it’s meant to soothe, it’s meant to comfort. But why? They don’t understand the words.”

“A Song by Mahler” features a five-piece ensemble and two singers playing the couple; the woman is an experienced singer and her husband is her accompanist. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but as the scenes build steam, the woman’s mental health deteriorates until she no longer recognizes her husband.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and baritone Ryan Bradford portray a married couple whose lives are turned upside down by an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in Marcus Neikrug’s ”A Song by Mahler”. (Emma Lee/WHY)

The woman is played by Jennifer Johnson Cano, a mezzo-soprano who premiered the piece in 2021 and toured to six of the seven cities where it was produced. She said that after performances, audience members often share their own experiences with family or friends with dementia or brain damage.