Phoenix Rising - Dan Russell's vision for his new ensemble
Far away in the remote Australian outback a curious sound arises from the depths of a sink-hole. It is a sound that is separated from its environment by millennia. Tourists linger to listen and if the animals of the night were to be around, they would surely stop in their tracks, hypnotised by the strains of a 21st century violin. This is the scene set by violinist Dan Russell as he journeys through the outback.
It’s reflective of the spirit of enterprise that bubbles within this musician. Narrating this adventure to CLASSICALsydney, Russell describes the 9000-kilometre road trip across Australia that he undertook with his family. That family included another inseparable member, his violin. “I took my violin with me and began to play in some of these remote places. I don’t believe anyone has ever got their violin out on the Nullabor plain and stopped and played.” It’s probably also the very first time that Arvo Pärt’s Fratres met the Australian outback. “It was quite isolated. I was in a sink hole in the middle of Mt Gambier which was essentially a deep cave. I started playing to test the acoustics and before I knew it, there were probably 30-40 tourists checking me out and it turned into an impromptu performance.”
The same force of energy that propels this musician to play his violin in the outback, has spurred him into creating the Phoenix Collective, a new collaborative series based in Sydney which features some of Australia’s unique talents and high-profile musicians in intimate concerts.
Russell will be at the core of the four 2018 concerts which will feature music that ranges from the classical genres to improvisation, contemporary works and Tango. Russell has hand-picked his four co-performers. “I brought everyone together. Over the years I’ve met these people and I want to work with them and play with them. Some of the concerts are very traditional and pay homage to the conventional violin and piano duo; but with the Tango concert for example, we’re specialising in Argentinian Tango and the heritage that comes with that – not just Piazzolla but the earlier Tango composers as well.”
The musical partnerships are likely to change each year, but for this year, Russell is joined by pianist Carl Schmidt, Head of the Piano Program at the Central Coast Conservatorium, keyboard player Christian Lillicrap, a graduate of the Royal College of Music in London and chamber music specialist, guitarist and composer Anthony Garcia whom Dan describes as an “an exquisite guitarist who plays a dream-like sound scape with atmospheric improvisation” and who brings a cross-cultural experience to his compositions enriched with a PhD in improvisation from the University of Tasmania; and, playing a 1936 bandoneon, Maggie Ferguson who studied orchestral tango in Buenos Aires. A classical violinist and chamber musician, Maggie returns to Argentina annually to work with colleagues and broaden her repertoire.
Russell himself is a conservatorium-trained violinist with a post-graduate diploma from the West Australian Academy for Performing Arts. He moved to Sydney to play with the (then) Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra before travelling to Europe to play with the Kammer Philharmonie Köln and other ensembles in Europe and the UK. Back in Sydney, Russell was, for two years, first violinist with the Australian Art Quartet and now teaches at the Central Coast Conservatorium whilst performing with several ensembles amongst them the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.
Add to this Russell glowingly announces that he’s been appointed to a fledgling opera company, Coast Opera Australia that is starting up on the Central Coast of New South Wales and scheduled to give its first performance in July.
Despite Sydney’s relative short history of western music, Russell has been at pains to match venues with repertoire. He points to the Hunter Baillie Memorial Church in Annandale which will be one of the venues for the four 2018 concerts. Opened in 1889, it is designed in early English Gothic style with an acoustic described by Russell as “amazing.” adding “some of the music in the series like the works by Brahms, César Franck and the mid to late romantic works will sound wonderful in that acoustic.” The June performance of the Phoenix Collective in the Hunter Baillie church will showcase a harpsichord built by Carey Beebe. A replica of a French double manual instrument, Russell is bringing it to Sydney from its home in the Central Coast Conservatory. “This recital series is giving it a new life,” he says. “It is the focus of the June Concerts when it will be played by Christian Lillicrap. It has a beautifully rich tone which will perfectly suit the Annandale and the Potts Point venues.
Russell’s own violin has the rare claim having been made by a female luthier, the German-born, Cremona-based Sybille Fehr-Borchard. Says Russell, “Her husband Gaspar Borchard is also a violin maker and my violin teacher in WA use to play one of his instruments. My violin was offered to me by the ex-concertmaster of the AOBO Semyon Kobets. So, I bought it and have the honour of being the only violinist who has ever owned it. It’s very recently made, in 2009 but like many Italian instruments, it has a beautiful tone.”
Russell receives some state funding for the concerts that he arranges though the Central Coast Conservatorium. However, he foots the bill for his Sydney activities. Whatever drives this irrepressible musician to “put a harpsichord in a van and take it into the middle of nowhere and put concerts on”, is the same force that drives him to realise his dream of creating an ensemble which will “bring a very Australian element to concerts …and I’m not just talking about the cities of Australia. I’m also talking about vast, rural, earthy landscapes and integrating those ancient lands as an element of the performance. I would like to see the Phoenix Collective as a core ensemble with a solid audience that attracts regular concert goers in Sydney and which undertakes regional tours in NSW and performances in other capital cities.”
Shamistha de Soysa for CLASSICALsydney©
Read more about the Phoenix Collective’s inaugural March concert series in Sydney (March 24) and on the NSW Central Coast (March 25)