Thursday 19 June 2014

Stravinsky in a Rococo Theatre

Stravinsky in a Rococo theatre

The indefatigable violinist Hugo Ticciati and his team of volunteers, musicians and artists dedicated to superlative performances, have done it again. The 2014 O/Modernt Festival, in the Confidencen (Ulriksdal Palace Theatre) outside Stockholm, came to a close on Tuesday night, June 17th. Everyone was totally exhausted, yet still smiling with the joy of producing art and music together.
                 Built in 1671, this amazing Rococo theatre is the oldest in Sweden.

Stravinsky's Soldier tramped his dusty road, the Devil won (again), the adrenaline and kinetic colours flowed on my glass plates and yes (thanks for all your good wishes), it went very well indeed. The somewhat senior audience came out grinning with astonishment. "We have never seen anything like this!"

Inevitably, a mobile phone went off, interrupting Alexander Oliver's narration. Not quite on cue though - later Sandy's narrative does include (twice) "the telephone rings". I half expected him to say to the offender "Oh, I had better take that - it might be the Devil".

Now back home, I'm reflecting (as usual) on why we are crazy enough to do this. Setting up the gear, solving multiple staging problems, rehearsing and finally performing non-stop for over an hour, was an exhausting dawn to midnight marathon! And I would love to do it again. What's my problem?

Looking out of my hotel window the next morning, the dusty road by the lake saw only a few joggers. The incredibly intense blue of Scandinavian skies and the peace of nature brought some relaxation. But Stravinsky's rhythms are still jogging through my system. I could almost be back on the shores of Lake Geneva, where he wrote l'Histoire du Soldat ninety-six years ago. 

Monday 2 June 2014

The dead painting

The dead painting

I laid out the wet watercolour on its board to dry and cycled home from the studio, trying to figure out what was wrong. My subject looked stiff and lifeless. A painting of a musical subject has to "sing", but as I worked on this commission to paint the flamboyant French cellist Paul Tortelier in December 1990, using a collection of images and sketches and playing his recordings again and again, it seemed hopeless. I just couldn't get the sensation of movement and music. 

The phone rang as I walked into my apartment. It was my friend the cellist Herre-Jan Stegenga, former student of the man I'm painting. "Have you heard the news?" he says - "Tortelier is dead". The shock was terrible. No wonder I couldn't make my painting live! 

Tortelier was due to perform at Birmingham's Symphony Hall and the commission was one of the first of nearly thirty paintings of prestigious musicians they had programmed. I had been so deeply involved with my subject, it took me a while to recover, but the only thing I could do was to start again (hence the two dates, bottom right). Paint a memorial to this great personality.

The challenge was to use the watercolour more transparently, to let the paper glow through, to "go with the flow", letting him go, as I listened to the music. To use a slightly dryer brush here and there to suggest the "decay" of the sound. To paint the "memory" of that phenomenal energy. And especially, to give him space. Less is more. Born a hundred years ago, he's still playing - somewhere.

Paul Tortelier, watercolour 84 x 56cm, 1990/91. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.