Friday 9 December 2016

My Mahler Experience

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 :

Friday 2 December 2016

The Philosopher

The philosopher of the piano

One of the early commissions for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection, in 1992, was to paint Alfred Brendel. I portrayed him as the learned philosopher of the piano, searching for and expounding profound issues in music, gazing into space, with his characteristic raising of the eyebrows, listening intently as he attempts to elevate us to the sublime. His gaze, accented by the heavy line of his spectacles, follows the direction of the undulating rising diagonal line from his tails, past the little flourish of the far end of the keyboard, left of the sloping piano lid to the four soft clouds of pale blue in the top right of the picture.  The white surface of the keyboard provides a counter-diagonal, to balance the whole composition. 

In my painting, Alfred Brendel is a natural extension of his great instrument – altogether, quite a lot of black. So I've tried to give those blacks and greys transparency, floating them over the mists of subdued olive green which swirl around him. His Steinway seems to be loaded with gold. Between heaven and earth, at the centre of everything, are those sensitive hands, with poor battered fingers taped, creating magic. His left hand is rising after placing a majestic chord from Liszt's 'Années de Pèlerinage'. Can you hear its dying sound? Brendel conjures up the grandeur of the echoing mountains and the stillness of the lakes of Switzerland and Italy - scenes which I know well. So it was Liszt, rather than Beethoven or Mozart, for which he has such a reputation, that became one of the main sources of inspiration for this painting.

This watercolour took quite a bit of research. I had been part of Brendel's audience years ago, but I had no opportunity, before the deadline for this commission, to observe him closely in live performance or rehearsal.  This was long before YouTube! Then Brendel's record company, Philips Classics, offered me the use of some wonderful video material in which his Liszt recordings were interspersed with thoughtful introductory talks.  The inspiration was there! But unfortunately the setting and lighting in which the recordings were made were totally different to the concept and colours I had in mind.  So began a long process of sifting and transforming impressions, through three or four studies, before the final watercolour took shape.

Twenty-four years on, looking back at this rather serious painting, I reflect on how inadequate any attempted representation of this erudite cultural giant would be, with his love of literature, languages and art, his sense of humour and much more. After the Birmingham concert for which this was painted, we were commiserating on the bad reproduction of my painting in a local newspaper. "It's the same with a recording", he said, "you are never satisfied".


My brush with Kandinsky, Magaloff & Josefowitz

My brush with 
Kandinsky, Magaloff & Josefowitz

It was an eerie drive through the snow, winding through the dark pine trees to Nina Kandinsky's chalet above Gstaad, Switzerland. My partner Vivian King, an American cellist studying with Pierre Fournier in Geneva in the mid-seventies, had been invited to a chamber music evening and dinner by David Josefowitz. An extraordinary, extremely wealthy Ukrainian entrepreneur and philanthropist, he was in the habit of inviting young musicians to play chamber music on his quartet of Stradivarius instruments. The 1735 cello was slightly shorter than usual and Vivian was excited to be invited to try it out. Rather intimidating though, because the great pianist Nikita Magaloff was also a guest. I tagged along with my sketchbook and paints, to seize the opportunity of making some musical impressions. 

The door opened to a babble of Russian, French and German and the dinner was multi-lingual. Nina provided us with liberal quotes from Kandinsky's ideas on the relationships between music and painting. As a comparatively lowly painter of musical themes, I became terribly aware that I was on holy ground. The intellectual giant of modern art himself had of course passed away in 1944. How I wished I could have met him.

Anyway, the idea was to sight-read some piano quintets with Magaloff. I remember the Schumann, but I'm hazy about the others. It had been a very good dinner - and it was delightful to hear how many mistakes even the greatest can make on a crazy evening like this - and just laugh them off. But Magaloff's sound and style was unforgettable, what has been described as his "limpid tone and a certain controlled impetuosity". Little of my impetuous brushwork was worth keeping, but I still have these fragmentary line sketches of Magaloff to remind me of that amazing evening. We drove home with the feeling that we had been deep into the heart of Russia.

(Below) Vivian and the author in the seventies. In the background, my painting of Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Stravinsky's "Firebird".

Following Kandinsky's death, the value of his work rocketed and with her new-found wealth, Nina soon acquired a reputation for collecting fine jewellery. Imagine our shock and horror when, a few years after our visit, we heard the news that Nina's chalet had been broken into and that she had been murdered. No priceless paintings were missing - only her latest million-dollar diamond necklace. A mystery that has never been solved. It feels strange, that of all the people in the chalet that evening, I may be the only one still alive.