Thursday, October 6, 2011

Derek Stein's watercolor studies of an orchestra and its players

(Photo Derek Stein)
“Usually, we think of an orchestra as a whole. The players wear, as it were, a common black uniform to emphasize their oneness. This is the public persona of the orchestra. And only the soloists and conductor stand out separately.”

This is how artist Derek Stein introduces the public to a collection of his paintings he calls “Diary of an Orchestra”, all in watercolor and pencil. Offering visitors to the recent Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival the opportunity to view the pictures at the concert venue, the exhibition, showing in the tranquil lounge of the Jerusalem International YMCA, opened September 24th 2011 and will continue till the end of October.

Derek Stein (b.UK), in Israel since 1969, teaches painting in watercolor and drawing. For nearly a year, he sat in on rehearsals of the Yad Harif Chamber Orchestra (director and conductor: Roni Porat), occasionally attending the orchestra’s concerts. Stein told me that what really fascinated him was watching the movement of the players and observing the relationship between players and orchestra as an organic whole. It was exciting to see how the conductor broke down the music in order to request emphasis on one note or a small phrase and how the players would respond to the urgency of the conductor. Stein speaks of music and art as both taking place in time, explaining that, on viewing a painting, you initially grasp the picture as a whole, but, in the process of observation, your eye moves around the picture, reconstructing it in sections. And then there are the artist’s associations: for him, the head of a double bass is evocative of the bow of a ship.

Rather than present the orchestra as a whole, Stein’s project “builds up the picture of the orchestra as a process” showing us the “intimacy between the individual players and their instruments, between the individual and the group”. As the project was getting under way, it seems the artist himself was undergoing his own process. He writes “It is now two months since I began and I feel within me how the music and the intensity of the players is affecting the organization of my page and even the movement of my brush”. Stein told me that each picture was painted in the span of no more than two hours, sketched very quickly in pencil and then worked on in color. Having identified the specific movement of the player that he wanted to show, it was a matter of waiting for it to return.

From many of the pictures in the exhibition, one becomes aware that Stein was mostly seated behind the orchestra. Viewing two violinists playing from one stand, one senses the connection between them. In a painting showing a female double bass player dressed in black, Stein has added a few small pencil sketches of other players at one side; these relate to the image of the double bass player. A picture of the woodwind section features a play of the diagonal direction of the instruments, matched by the players “moving forward” in the act of playing. In another painting, a trumpeter’s back, shoulders and position of the head reflect the effort of blowing a brass instrument. In “Costa Tuning His ‘Cello”, on the other hand, the player is slumped on a bench, relaxed, yet listening and very focused.

Stein’s awareness of the conductor as leader is clear in all the pictures showing Roni Porat. The conductor’s hands say it all. One picture of the Yad Harif Chamber Orchestra performing a concert in the YMCA auditorium brings us back to the uniform black clothes of orchestral players. Once again, the instrumentalists appear to be moving towards Porat. Stein sees an orchestra as a picture of black and white. Here, the music on a stand provides an “area of light”.

One painting with a humorous touch was inspired by a program called “Fantasy for Chimpanzee and Orchestra”, based on “Report to an Academy”(1917), a short story by Kafka, to music composed by Porat. In the story, an ape called Red Peter has learned to behave like a human being and presents the story of this transformation to an academy. Stein’s whimsical take on it has a chimpanzee placed close to the double bass player.

Thought-provoking and pleasurable to the eye, the exhibition will interest those who enjoy the understatement of watercolor as well as concert-goers and musicians alike.

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