REVIEW: John Myer’s ‘Paintings in Song,’ a triumphant collaboration between Crescendo and Rockwell

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By Tuesday, Apr 4 Arts & Entertainment  3 Comments
Stephen Potter
Christine Gevert leads the Crescendo ensemble in John Myers' 'Paintings in Song' at St. James Place on April 1.

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.

Crescendo's founder and director Christine Gevert. Photo: Stephen Potter

Crescendo’s founder and director Christine Gevert. Photo: Stephen Potter

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.

Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom of Speech' is projected over the Crescendo ensemble in a celebration of the Four Freedoms.

Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom of Speech’ is projected over the Crescendo ensemble during rehearsal.

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.


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3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ellen Maggio, Berkshire Children's Chorus Board of Trustees says:

    And please don’t overlook the contribution of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus! Our director, Julie Bickford and the Coda and Senior choir ensembles of the Chorus have been preparing their part of the Crescendo concert since the 2016/17 season commenced in September. The many rehearsals and the demanding concert schedule was a challenge that our young singers met with grace and skill. Bravo to the kids and to Crescendo, Christine Gevert and Mr. Myer.

    1. Susan Pettee, Great Barrington, MA says:

      The Children’s Chorus was magnificent! Thanks to their director but also to the wonderful singers for their dedication and their excellent work! Bravo!!!

  2. Christine Gevert says:

    Thank you for this detailed and informed review! I hope that your writing will draw your audience’s attention to choral music and Norman Rockwell’s legacy, and also spark people’s interest about a multimedia collaboration! We can’t thank the Norman Rockwell Museum enough for their ongoing support in this project!
    I also want to mention the excellent performance of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus berkshirechildrenschorus.org/ and their director Julie Bickford – who were a central part in this project, and sang beautifully and were instrumental part in making this project a reality. And besides tenor Christopher Sokolowski, our wonderful other soloists Nellie Rustick (Miss Jones), John Cheek (Pokey, the Clown), soprano Jolanta Lorenc and mezzo soprano Mavis Hsieh (Pokey’s friends), soprano Andrea Bargabos (Adventure, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship), and alto Trudy Weaver Miller and baritone John-Arthur Miller (Freedom of Worship) – and the wonderful cast of instrumentalists. We are thrilled with the newly restored venue, Saint James Place, and love the great acoustics, the look and the comfort of performing there, and their wonderfully supportive management!

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