The painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) produced over 4,000 works of art; he combined a folksy realism with aspirational uplift in a medium accessible to anyone with an eye or sense of humor. While his style may appear passé to many because of its sentimental thrust, his works serve as a vivid reminder of centrist American values that have eroded over the past few decades. Rockwell adeptly combined Americana with lively social critique that has withstood the passing decades. In 2016 the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge received a $1.5 million grant from George Lucas Family Foundation which will be used for digital learning and events to create multi-media experiments.
Crescendo premiered composer and lyricist John Myers’ “Norman Rockwell: Paintings in Song” on April 1 of last year at Saint James Place, the venue being appropriated for a large audience and video projection. As a Thanksgiving weekend special event, it was performed again at the Stockbridge Norman Rockwell Museum in an abridged format without video projection; the main paintings the music was about was right there in the next room to be viewed before the show.
This performance focused on six of the nine music vignettes composed by Myers who teaches at Bard College’s Simon’s Rock. There is information on all nine pieces at YouTube; a short video on the Thanksgiving Freedom from Want painting appears below. Just as Rockwell was inspired by the whole tradition of Western art, Myers presents music from the cornucopia of American music: neo-classical, opera, Brubeck-style four-five-beat jazz, swing, and even samba. This variety mimics the eclectic nature of mood and style within Rockwell’s sensibility. Each movement delivers different rhythms and moods that reify Rockwell’s themes.
Saturday night’s performance featured an introduction to Rockwell’s work, dramatic focus on Rockwell’s Four Freedoms exhibited in an adjoining room: The Freedom to Speak; The Freedom from Want; The Freedom of Worship (the current cover of Time magazine offers a contemporary re-imagining of Rockwell’s masterpiece); Freedom from Fear, offered a chromatic double bass descending (a technique inspired by Henry Purcell’s most successful opera, Dido and Aeneas). The final composition, an upbeat, joyous, climatic samba, presented The Golden Rule: Do unto others….
Christine Gevert conducted the multi-layered choral arrangements by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw with authoritative finesse; she peppered breaks with historical background, as well as musical commentary and analysis. Myers’ composition is the first extended musical companion to Norman Rockwell’s paintings, and as such deserves national exposure. This should be a two-hour PBS special telecast, or a major production by a prominent network.
A visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum is worth the trip to see the over 400 paintings and illustrations on the walls. Stockbridge itself still retains elements of what is celebrated in Rockwell’s classics: its quaint architecture and the character of the local people. Rockwell’s work has had a tremendous influence on American culture, including film and even music. Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” occupied the floor below Rockwell’s painting studio; Rockwell did the delightful and humorous sketches for the place mats still used at the Red Lion Inn.