While the pandemic saw plenty of musicians embrace impromptu concertising from their bedrooms, others, it appears, reached for an easel and paintbrush. Now, a three-day British chamber music festival aims to show how musicians, from pianists like Stephen Hough and Roger Vignoles to cellists like Nathaniel Boyd and Moray Welsh, are also gifted artists. Entitled the Fermata Festival, four live concerts will take place in conjunction with a visual art exhibition, and the good news for Australians who can’t get to London right now is the paintings are all for sale online.

Yuri Kalnits and Julia Morneweg

It’s the idea of Moscow-born London-resident violinist Yuri Kalnits and London-based cellist Julia Morneweg who run ChamberMusicBox, a collective of British and European artists promoting concerts across the UK. The festival will form part of the 2021 Kensington and Chelsea Art Week and the exhibition of 100 artworks created by classical musicians during lockdown has been curated by gallery owner and arts consultant Alan Kluckow.

“As the dark winter days dragged on, more and more artworks made their way onto Julia’s and my social media,” explains Kalnits, whose award-winning Weinberg cycle was recently reviewed by Limelight.  “We felt these works deserved more than ‘likes’ on Facebook and Instagram – they deserved their own dedicated exhibition, set alongside the artists’ most powerful inspiration: music.”

Kalnits and Morneweg began with a list of a dozen or so musician-artists, with more names added as a result of a shout-out on Twitter. After Kluckow came on board, they decided to run with the idea. “Alan sent the project proposal to a few of his contacts in the classical music business and word spread very quickly,” says Morneweg. “Before we knew it, our inboxes were filled with emails from musicians sending us their incredible works. I suddenly felt rather inadequate having achieved little more during lockdown than learn a lot of new repertoire and produce a bunch of YouTube videos!”

Stephen Hough’s Toccata (House gloss-paint on canvas, 36 x 48 inches)

A scan of the exhibition website reveals the remarkable quality of the works on offer and Kluckow was genuinely surprised by the wide variety of styles and media, from the abstract to academic realism and with much in between. “There are many whose work would not look out of place in a commercial gallery,” he says. “Amongst those are some who quite amazingly have only taken up painting as a result of the pandemic and time spent during lockdowns.”

For some musicians, it appears painting goes hand in hand with playing. For others it’s a relaxing hobby, while for one or two it’s clearly in the blood. Despite his reputation as a noted polymath, it turns out that for pianist and Limelight 2016 Artist of the Year Stephen Hough, painting is a relatively recent thing. “It was about 15 years ago that I bought my first tubes of acrylic paint, my first stretched canvases, my first palette knives and brushes,” he recounts. “I would love to spend more time painting than I do but I tend to be able only to snatch an hour here and there. Someday…”

Former Principal Cellist of the London Symphony Orchestra, Moray Welsh grew up in Edinburgh with its rich tradition of artistic movements like the Scottish Colourists. “In my teens I used to spend hours at the Summer Exhibition of the RSA, fascinated by the feast of work on view there, and though I did not have time to pursue my interest in a practical way – because of my cello studies – it was always a dormant passion, waiting in the wings to be explored at a later date,” he recalls. “But I really only started to paint much later in life (other than being a ‘holiday’ painter!) Painting acts as a foil to playing the cello and a refuge from the turbulent exterior world around us. As an activity in which one can totally immerse oneself without parameters of time, or the demands of an audience, I find it richly rewarding.”

Nathaniel Boyd’s Golden Fields (Oil on canvas, 20 x 25cm)

As a member of Australia’s most famous artistic dynasty, UK-based cellist Nathaniel Boyd (youngest son of Jamie Boyd and grandson of Arthur Boyd) was born with painting baked into his DNA. “My father was very generous in accommodating my joining him on plein air painting trips from a young age and allowing me to use (what I now realise are extremely expensive) paints and canvases!” he relates. “I always had the idea somewhere in the back of my mind that art would be a big part of my life, practically speaking, but training as a classical musician is all-consuming and so it wasn’t until later in my twenties that I began to dedicate more time to my art.”

Nowadays, Boyd paints and sculpts as often as possible. “There is something very special about being out in nature and painting the landscape in that particular moment, with all the environmental changes that entails,” he says. “It’s not at all dissimilar to musical performance in that regard. Having said that, I also love to work in the studio.”

As for the paintings themselves, the Fermata artists are an eclectic bunch with works including non-figurative abstracts like Hough’s, the pastoral watercolours of Roger Vignoles and the portraiture of Northern-Irish mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin – check out her acrylic of Aussie soprano Helena Dix as Ariadne.

“I have an abstract soul with regards to painting – shapes, textures, and above all colour,” says Hough who invited Kluckow over to choose a pair of large, recent works that use gloss house paint. “My heart beats faster when I squeeze a glob of cadmium-red from the tube, to see it glisten in the light, its smell, the smudge and smear. Painting is one of the most sensual things I do. I feel it as an erotic, electric surge.”

“I like the idea that paintings exist if only you can find them, so there is a quest to find the elements that might combine into a satisfying whole,” says Welsh, who is exhibiting a series of five still life paintings. “Generally, a subject is simmering in the back of my mind for some time before it presents itself in a shape or form that I feel I can explore. Contrary to what a lot of people say, I don’t find the two activities at all similar, in practical terms, as they seem to use quite different aspects of consciousness, but at the same time the focus on subtlety of expression is analogous.”

Moray Welsh’s Before and After

“I like pictures that tell a story or pose the viewer with a question,” he explains, referring to his painting Before and After. “It is a little visual pun. The ‘Before’ was actually the painting of the subject in the foreground, and the drawing on canvas in the background (which usually precedes the painting) was painted after that – in other words there was no drawing to paint when I started to paint the picture, only a blank canvas behind the oranges. So, the preparatory drawing actually became the ‘After’!”

Despite a busy career as the cellist of the Albion Quartet, Boyd is sufficiently accomplished to exhibit professionally with work to be found on his website, nathanielboyd.com). “I began to approach galleries some years ago now and am currently showing at the Redhill Gallery in Brisbane and Gallery on Sturt in Ballarat,” he says. “For this exhibition I have chosen a series of plein air paintings from the beautiful countryside around where I live in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. With the very strong musical connection in this Festival, it feels appropriate to include what to me are artistic performances.”

Carolyn Dobbin’s Ariadne, soprano Helena Dix (Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 50cm)

The Fermata Festival kicks off on 25 June with a concert of sextets by Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Meanwhile, approximately 100 works will be on show in the live exhibition at St Cuthbert’s Church in Earl’s Court with more on the festival website. All of the artwork has been priced by the artists themselves and is being offered for sale on a first come, first served basis and is available for international shipping.

As the evening concerts had to be planned during the very early stages of putting together the exhibition, only violinist Maria Fiore Mazzarini who performs on the opening night is also an artist. However, the free Saturday afternoon concert will feature exclusively musicians whose work is a part of the exhibition. “We are inviting audience members of all ages to paint and draw to the music if they wish,” says Kalnits.

Explore the Fermata Festival’s concerts and artworks for sale here

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