Crescendo ensemble sets Norman Rockwell paintings in Song

Blues and Middle Eastern scales blend into children’s voices holding a line as simple as a Shaker tune, with low notes below. A man and a woman stand by their sleeping son and daughter, holding a newspaper with a headline from the blitz.

American music of all kinds embraces well-known images in “Norman Rockwell: Paintings in song,” a concert with the Four Freedoms from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address at its core.

Crescendo ensemble’s 50 singers will present the full work for the first time this weekend, with the Berkshire Children’s chorus and soloists, 25 children and 10 instruments, in partnership with the Norman Rockwell Museum. They are performing in the newly opened concert hall at venue at St. James Place in Great Barrington, and in Kent, Conn.

Christine Gevert, artistic director of Crescendo, said the music and the paintings, and the values they hold, have depth and deep relevance now, in a divided time, as the country debates what America means.

I Dream a World

The project has evolved in close collaboration. Composer John Myers, on the faculty in music at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, came to Gevert a year and a half ago with the idea of a work inspired by Norman Rockwell. He wanted to span the 20th century in Rockwell’s images, through the World Wars and all its challenges.

John and his wife, Alice Myers, have worked with Crescendo in unique performances over the years. In 2007, their collaboration on Hugo Distler’s “Totentanz” (Dance of Death) with modern dance and animation, took Crescendo to Europe. In 2013, Crescendo commissioned works from Myers and berkshire composer Cheng-Chia Wu. Myers’ work, half in Mandarin and half in English, set Chinese poetry a thousand years old to music for Chinese and estern instruments. The program won Crescendo a national Alice Parker/ASCAP Award.

For the new work, Alice Myers and their daughter, Anna Sabotini, have created animations and multimedia around the nine Rockwell paintings, with photographs from his lifetime, all timed to the music.

Lift Ev’ry Voice

And the music is American from every place and time and group of people who are and have been a part of this place. John Myers has tapped into classical and jazz in a fusion of styles, Gevert says — blues, rock, reggae, Brazilian samba.

He quotes or interjects popular music from the decades when Rockwell painted each painting, she says, from the 1910 to the 1950s. Musical styles overlap in counterpoint and variation, borrowing from the late late Renaissance and Baroque, Purcell and Bach, and 21st-century musicians from Ravel to Bartok. The effect is impressionistic, Gevert says — in parts the choir sounds almost instrumental.

The music enfolds images that face conflicts from the last hundred years with independence, integrity and connection.

“For me … it is beautiful to explore more of this country,” she said, “to understand the culture and the idiosyncrasy of life in this century, the values and history that Norman Rockwell documented.”

A teacher thanks her students for remembering her birthday. People from many faiths are praying together. A family is moving into a new house, and the neighbors come to meet them, holding a baseball glove: a black brother and sister and white brothers and sister are inviting each other over for a game.

The breadth of people in the world give light to it, Gevert said.

Myers has connected the word “light” to specific passages of music. Gevert sees that light in the paintings, literally and figuratively.

“Something that fascinates me about Rockwell,” she said. “He studied Renaissance painting, but did not consider himself a painter. He called himself an illustrator.”

In his paintings she sees Renaissance elements — in the faces and hands, the fabrics, the contrasts of light and dark, as in Freedom from Want the light is shining through a window. She feels a sadness and a brightness in them.

This land belongs

Myers wrote the lyrics to his music, finding words from the paintings and making his own spare phrases, direct and warm with humor.

A symphonic piece opens the century, calling for adventure, adventure. In the 1920s, a sad clown, a solo bass, is playing checkers backstage with a friend, and the music flips into wild rhythmical measures in 7/8 time. Jazz musicians then were composing in complex compound key signatures, Gevert said.

Then Rockwell’s paintings of the Four Freedoms move into the middle of the century and the years around World War II. First the adult ensemble sings alone in Freedom of Worship: a woman holding a rosary, a man holding a Quran, many hands folded in prayer. Myers found this piece challenging, he told Gevert, because he wanted to give a sense of the universality of faith without favoring any one belief.

He interweaves a sanctus, music from a Catholic Mass, with Middle Eastern elements, ancient scales that have come into many major religions, into Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A soloist sends a call to prayer, powerful and joyful.

In Freedom of Speech, he reaches out in blues music. He said the blues always tells a story, Gevert said. Blues music incorporates dissonances, and the dissonances live within the form of the work. She thinks of that structure, and of the dissenting and different voices in democracy.

With Freedom from Want, and the children come in, joyful and expectant, like a light through the window. And in Freedom from Fear they sing on, eerily innocent over a bass theme and chord progressions from the adults who want to protect the children, knowing the future is not a safe place.

In rehearsals, she said, she has seen some of the singers crying, unable to sing.

“That rarely happens,” she said.

Then Miss Jones, the school teacher, is singing back and forth with the children in her classroom and their parents, a fugue in thankfulness with a ’50s rock rhythm, and Moving Day comes into the 1960s in a jazz waltz.

And all around me a voice came sounding

Rockwell’s images and Myers’ music make up half of the concert program. In the other half she has interspersed American music that touches on the same values. She has curated the music in conversation with Alice Parker, a remarkable director and arranger of music, an icon now more than 90 years old and a close collaborator with Robert Shaw. Parker has created many arrangements of folk songs and spirituals, and Gevert reached out to her for suggestions and brought them in — an original composition honoring American Indian voices in an invocation of peace, and Dave Brubeck’s jazzed “I Dream the World,” and Shenandoah, and more.

“I am so fortunate to be part of this project,” Gevert said. “I never imagined — I think it’s what every choral conductor dreams of. And with John, it’s a friendship, a relationship of trust.”

He understands her knowledge of the voices, she said, and he loves the group. The way someone writes for a group they know well is different. And between them they have drawn in the animators, the museum, the director of the children’s chorus and musicians from Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

The performance is powerful for her, she said, as someone who loves this country and has lived here for 15 years. It holds the music at the heart of the place, and the beliefs at the heart of democracy.

She recognizes pain and fear here, in the past and in the present, and courage too.

“The Four Freedoms is something many Americans could come to treasure,” she said. “We need to hear it — many times.”

I spoke for Christine Gevert earlier this year for a highlight in Berkshire Magazine — my thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer. Our conversation ranged into the background of the work, into the music and the words. In the photo at the top, Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom of Speech’ shows a local man standing up at a town meeting. (Photo courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum.)

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