The making of
The Mahler Experience
A few weeks ago, with over two thousand others, I was shuffling towards the exit of Birmingham's Symphony Hall, slightly dazed, the sounds of Mahler 1 still going through my whole being. Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla had just conducted the CBSO in another fabulous concert. They brought the house down!
We pass by my painting The Mahler Experience - Symphony Hall. "Look", a woman in front of me says to her group, "I think that may be Mahler 2, with Simon Rattle". "That's right", I mutter. "Are you sure?" "Yeah, I painted it". The crowd comes to a standstill. "You painted it! Hey, he painted it!" Handshakes all round. I find this reaction rather amusing, but it happens every time I'm in Birmingham. A group of teenagers is hanging around. I try not to feel prejudiced about their demeanour. One of them eventually approaches me and says: "Sir, I just have to tell you: that painting changed my life. I now love classical music". A novelist wants to include the painting as the sublime emotional experience of her main character. Could we do a photo in front of the painting? And so on. I feel rather happy for all of them, but strangely, it's as though some else painted it, long ago in the history of art. Everybody wants to know more, but I want to say to them "ah, you should see the next one that I'm working on!" (Watch this space).
The 1993 commission came from Mike Dernie of Midlands Electricity, then one of the main sponsors of Symphony Hall. Mike was a member of the CBSO Chorus. (You can just make him out in the back row). He became a good friend and I'm writing this for him, in appreciation of what he did for me and many thousands of viewers in the last twenty-three years. He drove over to my Amsterdam studio to collect the finished work personally in his van. There was no suitable wall to hang it in the entrance mall, so they built a fake one. Now the painting gives you a glimpse of the Hall without going inside and a glimpse of the experience that might be yours if you a buy a concert ticket.
People often ask "how do you start?" The inspiration came from two experiences of hearing Mahler 2 (the so-called "Resurrection" symphony), first at the opening of Symphony Hall in 1991 with Simon Rattle conducting the CBSO, then later with Mariss Jansons. I made a number of preparatory studies of course, but then standing in front of this rather large white canvas (200 x 160cm.) I felt dwarfed, aware that I had to do justice to the musicians and the Hall that I was about to paint. The awful moment of truth. I needed to hear the music, so I pressed the button, Mahler 2 blasted out full volume and I was away, going with the flow of those first transparent washes of acrylic. This was to be an ode to the architecture and superb acoustics of one of the best halls in the world. The perspective of those irregular curving shapes was a challenge, but it was sheer joy to paint that cloud of floating sound, zigzagging upwards, spreading across the adjustable ceiling, every sound enhanced by the expertise of the legendary acoustician Russell Johnson (1923-2007). His acoustic design determined the architecture.
Here are a few more shots from my diary, showing some of the developments and changes :
Cards and prints of this work are on sale at the Birmingham Symphony Hall Gift Shop.