A screen drops from the rafters, obscuring a section of the concert-hall stage in the midst of a 44-piece orchestra and 50-member youth choir. As the musicians play the opening strains of an Argentine tango, two ballroom dancers appear in silhouette, moving gracefully behind the screen as the music swirls around them. The song ends, the screen slides away, and a septuagenarian couple, Bob and Nancy Dufault, are revealed as the dancers. Nancy, afflicted with Parkinson's disease, has trouble moving without a walker and is often confined to a wheelchair. But while the music plays, she can dance. While the music plays, she is healed.
The Argentine tango is just one of 12 movements in the "Symphonic Suite for Healing," a music-therapy project that will premiere Saturday at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Composed by former David Bowie pianist and rock-star emeritus Mike Garson, each of the movements in the symphony was selected for the beneficial effect it produces in patients with brain-based illnesses. The Foundation for Neurosciences, Stroke and Recovery (FNSR) is sponsoring the concert with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.
"We've been reaching out for ways to help in the community, and we decided to add music therapy as our latest project," says Dr. Christopher Duma, an Orange County-based neurosurgeon, FNSR founder and producer of the suite. The foundation also provides support groups; fitness classes; and patient advocacy for individuals with brain tumors, Parkinson's disease, dementia, stroke and other neurological disorders.
"This is an ongoing project, not just a one-time event," Duma says. "The project is also benefiting the Alzheimer's Association of Orange County; the National Parkinson's Foundation; the RTH Stroke Foundation, a local foundation for stroke; and the Philharmonic Society."
Duma and Garson started work on the "Symphonic Suite for Healing" a few years ago, after meeting through an unsuccessful online music-school start-up. Garson spent more than three decades as a member of David Bowie's supporting band; a classical and jazz pianist, Garson has been gigging and composing since age 14 and has written more than 5,000 pieces that span classical, jazz, rock and pop music.
"I started writing this kind of music as early as '79 or '80, so I might have about 500 pieces that were specifically for healing, but they were pieces I never thought of as healing," Garson says. "It's very exciting, and it's been in the making for a very long time."
Garson wrote about 30 pieces of music specifically for the suite and played them for Duma's patients to identify what improved their symptoms, their sense of well-being and their mood.
"We've been testing patients by putting headphones on them and having them rate the music over the past six months—how it makes them feel, whether it's something they would listen to again, whether it decreases some of the pain they're having," Duma says.
"Everybody has pieces they like, that make them feel better—mentally, spiritually, physically," Garson says. "I'm not re-inventing the wheel, I'm just contributing to that motion and making it a big moment."
The two-part concert will open with Garson leading a 10-piece jazz group through selections from Paganini, jazz legend Dave Brubeck and Bowie's "Space Oddity," the lyrics for which will be performed by part of the youth choir. Garson will close the first half alone on piano, with a medley of George Gershwin standards, and the full orchestra will take the stage in the second half for the premiere of the "Symphonic Suite for Healing."
"I usually go out with a trio, quartet, solo piano or a rock band—I'm going out with 100 pieces on the stage," Garson says. "So it's a little nerve-wracking."
For Garson and Duma, the suite is a starting point, and plans to expand music therapy throughout Orange County and beyond are already in the works.
"What I'm trying to do is hone down certain music that is good for the general public of patients that are not feeling well. Maybe Parkinson's patients like dance music or tangoes, while an Alzheimer's patient might like something that can bring them back to their past a little easier," Duma says. "An ultimate goal is to put music-therapy programs in hospitals, so patients can switch to the music-therapy channel on the TV and listen to that instead of the piped-in music that they normally have. . . . The only hospital that has a music-therapy program is CHOC [Children's Hospital of Orange County]."
"I'm going to be able to play this with any orchestra in the world once it's premiered," Garson says. "I think as you get older, you want to help elevate the consciousness of the planet, and I would hope that this piece will be part of that group consciousness."