REVIEW: John Myer’s ‘Paintings in Song,’ a triumphant collaboration between Crescendo and RockwellMore Info
Great Barrington — The long-awaited premier of John Myers’ “Paintings in Song” at Saint James Place on Saturday, April 1 was, by any measure, a triumph. The music and accompanying multimedia presentation, commissioned in 2015 by the Connecticut-based performance organization Crescendo, is the culmination of more than two years’ work on the part of Mr. Myers and his collaborators, Crescendo director Christine Gevert, graphic designers Alice Myers and Anna Sabatini, and the Norman Rockwell Museum. Mr. Myers, a professor of music, electronic arts, and cultural studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, based his piece on nine paintings by Norman Rockwell, including the iconic “Four Freedoms.” These and other images were digitally enhanced and projected throughout the concert on a screen above the chorus. The projections worked well, mainly because the designers developed them in close collaboration with the composer and director.
In the past, Crescendo has tended to focus on performances of early choral music, which is Ms. Gevert’s specialty. So it’s likely that new music based on Norman Rockwell’s classic tableaus of 20th-century America will contrast sharply with the group’s typical repertory. And it did on Saturday. But Crescendo’s vocalists and instrumentalists were well prepared. In fact, they sounded completely at home with everything on the program, much of which — especially in the case of Myer’s jazzier numbers — is clearly demanding of the musicians.
Myer’s piece was just one ingredient in Saturday’s program, “Norman Rockwell and Alice Parker: Visions of America in Art and Song.” It also included choral pieces composed or arranged by others. Ms. Gevert had selected quintessentially American pieces of choral music — from Alice Parker, Robert Shaw, William Billings, and Jonny Priano — and sandwiched them between sections of Myer’s work.
It might strike one as odd that one composer’s piece of music would be performed with it’s sections interrupted by other composers’ works, and — on paper — the disparate selections warned of a strange cocktail of styles, a recipe for discontinuity and aural dyspepsia. But Ms. Gevert knew exactly what she was doing when she put this program together. In performance, her choices made perfect sense. They fully complemented Myer’s music and naturally supported the Rockwell theme.
The program’s penultimate selection, Dave Brubeck’s, “I Dream a World: Chorale” was — by virtue of its European contrapuntal stylings — not quite so American sounding, at least not in contrast with Parker’s and Shaw’s trademark sound. The piece evinces little of the jazzy style you might expect from Brubeck, but it is, in fact, a perfectly gorgeous piece of American choral music. No one complained about the counterpoint.
Mr. Myers know how to build a finale that closes a show without indulging in awkward histrionics. “The Golden Rule,” with a solo part by tenor Christopher Sokotowski, brought the program to a satisfying conclusion and the crowd to its feet.