For violinist Dan Russell and pianist Edward Neeman, the ANU School of Music has provided an opportunity to form a musical partnership. They have stretched their talents exploring a world of English music in their recent Phoenix Collective concert.
Russell and his family have returned to his wife's home town recently. He has been a committed member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra for the last three years. Russell has taken an active role in the School of Music Side by Side Chamber Orchestra, which partners students with established musicians to form an ensemble capable of performing works that extend the younger members.
He is founder of the Phoenix Collective, a flexible chamber ensemble (depending on repertoire) with core members Yuhki Mayne, violin, Ella Brinch on viola and Andy Wilson, cello who have an impressive 2020 touring season planned for Canberra and other places.
Next year's program covers eclectic repertoire, ranging from the first concert, Intricate Machines with works by Bach, Dvorak and Reich, to the last, Maitres de la Composition - piano and violin masterpieces from Poulenc, Fauré , Debussy and Ravel (see: phoenixcollective.com.au).
Neeman - who is an associate member of the collective - is a pupil of composer and pianist Larry Sitsky, and a graduate of the Julliard School, who has come home to Canberra to share his international experience as performer and educator.
With his wife Stephanie, he has contributed substantially to raising the profile of the School of Music over the past two years under the directorship of Kim Cunio, as a centre for excellence in performance. Both musicians are passionate about the relevance of music to the lives of audiences and students in an increasingly volatile world.
As a teacher, Neeman believes that "music offers students a way of creating balance and perspective - a unique language and a whole different mental perspective on their personal direction and other subjects they are studying. Music performance also offers the ANU a powerful and positive community interface. The School of Music is all about connections with the community that relate to the needs of audiences."
Russell, too, sees community at the heart of music making.
"The choice of 'Phoenix' for the name of the ensemble relates to personal history and overcoming some tough things that have happened in my life, where music was always a healing force.
"I have seen the tremendous healing power of music from working with mental health initiatives in Sydney and I try and bring these insights to the music I perform. My philosophy with the Phoenix Collective is to involve different musicians and make the concert series appeal to diverse audiences."
When asked what they get from their musical partnership, Neeman says, "It's been a great artistic journey we've had working on this concert. It's a bit embarrassing, but before accepting the concert invitation, I had not played any of the composers on the program in a serious way."
Tackling Delius's tricky chromaticism, the grandeur of Elgar's Sonata in E Minor, Grainger's almost manic treatment of an Irish reel and the delicate beauty of Vaughan William's The Lark Ascending has been quite an adventure.
Russell says, "The greatest gift has been the freedom provided by Edward's approach to accompaniment to explore and develop a very personal interpretation of the works. He is a very generous musician with an incredible dedication to listening to what a soloist is trying to produce."
On Thursday night Russell played with daring, throwing himself headlong into the rough surf of Delius's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, riding the dangerous waves of undulating interwoven melodies and navigating the eye-brow-knitting chromatic currents to bring the work to an energetic conclusion. His violin, made by a female luthier, the German-born, Cremona-based Sybille Fehr-Borchard in 2009, wins my award for the loveliest tone I have heard in a violin for 2019, with a sweet upper register, warm lower end with seductive flavours in the middle register.
The version performed by Russell and Neeman of Vaughan William's The Lark Ascending for piano and violin was an exquisite experience. Neeman made a perceptible adjustment of his style and touch to give the harmonisations delicacy, and it was a treat to watch the two musicians listening intently to each other to blend the two instrumental voices so as to give the lark its flight.
There were nice resonances with Delius's open textures in this performance and spine-tingling reverberant chording from the violin - the lovely sequence that feels like it is opening the listener's heart to the elemental joy of the song-bird.
Molly on the Shore showcased Neeman's versatility. Grainger's translation of the reel for piano works well on that instrument but not so well for the violin because the composer ignored the traditional bowing patterns and rhythmic subtleties that make a reel sound spectacular. Grainger essentially wrote a piano part that sounds like chopped up fragments on the violin.
Elgar's Sonata for Violin and Piano in E Minor was a grand conclusion, with the two musicians uniting in a triumphant finale, but the really magical ending came with the encore - their version of Elgar's small and perfectly formed Chanson de Matin.
- Phoenix Collective Concert 4: Ye Olde England. Larry Sitsky Recital Room,Thursday November 21, 2019.