The Phoenix Collective: Intricate Machines. Larry Sitsky Recital Room, ANU School of Music, Friday February 21, 2020, 7pm.
The Phoenix Collective set the Sitsky recital room resonating with a program that was both intellectually enriching and sensuously beautiful on Friday night. For two hours the audience explored a web of music evocative of intricate machines - conceptual "machines" constructed out of elements of fugue, minimalism, tintinnabuli, rhythmic architecture and raw emotional energy. In the right hands, as it was in this concert, the recital room becomes a musical instrument itself, immersing the audience in sound.
For the Intricate Machines concert, the Phoenix Collective members were artistic director, Dan Russell and Yuhki Mayne on violins, Ella Brinch, on viola and Andrew Wilson on cello. As the concert progressed the ensemble sound audibly grew in confidence and unity, building to the triumphant String Quartet No.12 in F major, Op.96, "American" by Dvorak. While the "American" string quartet is a firm favourite with audiences, it was the new music in the program that I found most refreshing as a tonic at the end of the working week.
Living up to their description as performers of "classical music with an Australian edge", the Phoenix Ensemble interpretation of Bach's The Art of Fugue, Contrapunctus 1-3 gave the second variation a twist by using ponticello, with the bow near the bridge, in the opening phrases. The exploratory character of the performance continued with a brisk conversation between instrument parts in the third variation, ending in a magnificent final chord.
Different Trains for string quartet and recorded performance tape by Steve Reich was an intensely moving presentation
Different Trains for string quartet and recorded performance tape by Steve Reich was an intensely moving presentation. The concentration of each musician in keeping their part of the minimalist motifs in motion mirrored the subject matter of lone travellers, represented by the voices of Holocaust survivors. The random fragments of recorded conversation embody the unfathomable cruelty of fate that kept some travellers alive while other passengers met their end in the death camps at their destination.
Arvo Part's Fratres, arranged by Dan Russell for string quartet and laptop, incorporated the swaying of the musicians into the breathing patterns of the phrasing and spacious clarity of the layered sounds to create a remarkably beautiful visual listening experience.
Sarah Wallin Huff's Anima Mechanicae: Soul of the Machine contrasted sympathetically in its use of rhythmic patterning, flying arpeggios and an aural illusion of ethereal pulsing chords like flying shuttles.
The Phoenix Collective leapt into Dvorak's quartet with enthusiasm and confidence, the opening phrases offering opportunities to savour the agile viola line, answering sonorous cello and a remarkably rich phrase from Mayne's violin. Unison passages played by the two violins in the second movement were perfectly matched in rhythm and delicacy, and by the third movement the ensemble was inside the essence of the composition, weaving the composer's magic.
Dan Russell and his musicians are a special ensemble who manage to retain a sense of fresh curiosity and exploration while navigating technically demanding scores.