Phoenix Quartet musically ponders Love Life & Death

Love Life & Death.  Phoenix Quartet. Presented by Phoenix Collective. Larry Sitsky Room, ANU School of Music. Thursday, March 7, 7pm. More information:

Violinist Dan Russell is something of a musical entrepreneur.  In addition to his other musical pursuits, in 2018 he founded Phoenix Collective, a group of musicians in various configurations.

As artistic director, he plays as a solo violinist with a pianist, with a guitarist,  in baroque and tango trios, and in a string quartet. While the soloists in the duo and trio combinations can vary, the quartet is more fixed in its membership.

Phoenix Quartet led by Dan Russell (violinist with facial hair) is coming to ANU School of Music. Photo: Supplied

Phoenix Quartet led by Dan Russell (violinist with facial hair) is coming to ANU School of Music. Photo: Supplied

And it's Phoenix Quartet that's coming to Canberra on March 7 for Love Life & Death. While it's not quite a homecoming for the Sydney-based Russell, he does have strong links here. He is married to a Canberran whose parents live in the nation's capital and he's been a regular performer with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra for the last three years.

Russell says, "Quartet is the pinnacle of string music and the chamber music genre. Four equal voices: soprano, alto, tenor and bass: the fundamentals of harmony deep in conversation with
each other. It’s no wonder that all the great composers wrote for this ensemble."

The repertoire Russell and his colleagues - Yuhki Mayne (violin), Ella Brinch (viola) and Andy Wilson (cello) - will play in Love, Life & Death spans hundreds of years, from Mozart to Glass.

Philip Glass's String Quartet #3 was written as part of Glass's soundtrack for the 1985 film Mishima and was also used in the 1998 film The Truman Show.

In Mishima, Russell says, "the orchestra is reduced to strings for Mishima’s last day where he commits seppuku, or ritual suicide".

"Starting at the end then working back is used a lot - in writing for example - because it forces us to think what the story’s about. And by starting with death, everything that comes before it has more meaning."

Phoenix Quartet led by Dan Russell (front, violinist with facial hair) is coming to Canberra. Photo: Supplied

Phoenix Quartet led by Dan Russell (front, violinist with facial hair) is coming to Canberra. Photo: Supplied

The following work, Shostakovich's Polka for String Quartet, is "more uplifting, satirical and quirky" and then comes Mozart's first string quartet. Russell says it was written when Mozart was about 13 or 14 while he was on tour with his father - apparently at a pub.

The Köchel catalogue of the composer's works suggests Mozart had already written several dozen pieces by then. The quarter, Russell says, shows "the simplicity and genius" of the young Mozart.

"After the interval is the main course, Beethoven's 10th string quartet known as 'The Harp'.

"For me, this piece marks a key turning point in Beethoven's life: He was in love with a famous soprano to whom he proposed, about the time Napoleon was invading Vienna."

Russell says the story goes that the third movement of this quartet was written while Beethoven was hiding in the basement with cloth wrapped around his ears trying to save what was left of his hearing from the cannons of Napoleon’s army.

"And the exquisite slow movement represents Beethoven's warmth and hope, but unfortunately, unrequited love."

He notes the quartet was written in the same key (E flat) as Beethoven's Eroica symphony, which he was working on at about the same time.

"For the last piece, and on a more cheerful note we are taken skyward with a rendition of Turtle Island String Quartet's Skylife, by David Balakrishnan," Russell said.

"It's a kind of palette cleanser of funky classical/ jazz fusion. I feel that for both the audience, and us as performers, it's important to see the whole picture of this program. It’s an awesome journey."

Russell, 34, was born in Armadale, Western Australia. He began playing the violin at the age of five and studied music at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and the University of Western Australia.

Since then he's had a varied musical career, performing in a jazz trio, in the pit for Opera Australia and the musical The Phantom of the Opera, and with Kammerphilharmonie Köln, just to name a few of his credits.  He's played in Europe and New Zealand as well as his home country.

Russell and various configurations of the collective will return to Canberra during the year for more performances including The Baroque Bizarre (baroque trio) in May and Ye Olde England in November.

Russell's busy career means he has to travel all over Australia. But it's not as glamorous as it might seem.

"I do a lot of driving."