DPO presents Musical Gallery, honoring the life’s work of iconic American painter/illustrator Norman Rockwell
With those words Norman Rockwell summed up his modus operandi for a lifetime of artistic achievement. For forty-plus years, his illustrations of the covers of The Saturday Evening Post magazine became an integral part of American popular culture. The Willie Gillis and Four Freedoms series, Rosie the Riveter, and my personal favorite, Saying Grace, captured the essence of the beauty, joy, seriousness, and camaraderie of everyday American life.
Picture this: a small-town café peopled by working-class people. Two big, burly, cigarette-smoking truck drivers share a table with a small, red-headed boy and an older woman (ostensibly his grandmother). One trucker reads a menu; the other holds a cup of coffee and stares inquisitively at the woman and boy, both of whom have their heads bowed, their eyes closed, and their hands folded in prayer and saying grace.
That juxtaposition of characters, that slice-of-life realism was how Norman Rockwell told pictures in stories.
Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell (At the Dayton Art Institute November 12, 2011 – February 5, 2012) is an exhibition spanning 56 years of his work (1914 – 1970) that traces his artistic contributions and the impact of his images on American popular culture.
Concurrently, on Friday, January 6 and Saturday, January 7, at 8 pm in the Schuster Center, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will present Musical Gallery, a concert program that features a Debussy prelude, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 performed by American pianist William Wolfram, and Rockwell Reflections, a study in Americana by national and international award-winning composer Stella Sung.
For Rockwell Reflections, Stella Sung chose five seminal paintings by Norman Rockwell to use as points of departure for her compositions. Like Rockwell’s paintings, these compositions have a strong narrative quality. During the performance of Rockwell Reflections, the DPO will project imagery of these five of Rockwell’s most famous paintings on a screen above the DPO in the Mead Theater:
Artist Facing Blank Canvas, 1938
This painting is an unusual self-portrait. Rockwell does not show us his likeness; instead, the artist lets us look over his shoulder at a dilemma that ruled his working life. With clarity and wit he communicates his exasperation through such telling details as the head scratch, the splayed shirt collar, the upside-down horseshoe, and the rejected sketches piled on the floor.
The Stay at Homes, 1927
In this charming scene a boy and his grandfather seem to be lost in a reverie as they gaze out at a schooner leaving the harbor for open water. For the child such journeys are yet to come; for the grandfather the journeys are memories to be savored. Rockwell elaborates his theme with a swirl of gulls above the two figures. Birds in flight are an age-old metaphor for flights of imagination and spirit.
Rockwell’s painting illustrates a key moment in a short story about a circus clown named Pokey Joe. Pokey Joe has been suffering from self-doubt about his ability to perform. His friends and fellow performers organize a little deception to cheer him up, letting him win an important game of checkers. The painting captures Pokey Joe’s delight in his moment of triumph. Also apparent is Rockwell’s delight in painting the brilliantly colored circus setting.
In this musical composition, the DPO playing in the background represents the circus, while the individual players of the strings represent the five figures in the foreground of the painting. The concertmaster is the checkers player on the left and the principal cellist is the clown on the right. The dog that is quite content to continue sleeping is played by the viola that never changes pitch!
Murder in Mississippi, 1965
In the 1960s Rockwell began to do assignments for Look Magazine, which addressed important current events. The most dramatic painting of this period was Murder in Mississippi. Rockwell was horrified by the murder of three young, dedicated civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. Klansmen stopped the three men at night on a deserted road, took them to a remote location, and shot them. Rockwell’s painting of their last moments is not a documentary. Instead, the artist created his work in the style of a formal heroic composition. It honors the courage and sacrifice of these three young men.
The Peace Corp, JFK’s Bold Legacy, 1966
Rockwell was deeply affected by the turmoil of the 1960s, the racial conflicts, assassinations, Vietnam War, and nuclear threat. Rockwell, though, always found a reason for optimism in young people. The Peace Corp represents this optimism in a group of profile portraits of young men and women looking up and outward toward a bright vision beyond the confines of the picture. The profile portrait composition is a reprise of his famous 1942 painting Freedom of Worship. Here, though, the faith that Rockwell celebrates is the spirit of the next generation to make the world a better place.
Exasperation. Reverie. Delight. Courage. Optimism. Those are the emotions, sentiments, and character traits that Norman Rockwell set down on canvas for us all to look at and see reflections of ourselves as people.
And as Americans.
Dayton Philharmonic Presents “Musical Gallery”
January 6 and January 7 at 8 pm
Schuster Performing Arts Center