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Reviews/Music

Debut delight from new ensemble

24 May 2021

The Banksia Ensemble arrive on the scene with an unusual and enthralling debut, says Rosalind Appleby.

Banksia Ensemble, The Soldier’s Tale + ·
All Saints College, 21 May 2021 ·

Typically a new classical ensemble would make its debut with popular repertoire, designed to attract a crowd. Not so the Banksia Ensemble, who in their first concert have marked themselves as musicians with far more weighty ambitions. Founded by conductor and percussionist Jen Winley, who is currently taking part in the WA Symphony Orchestra’s emerging conductor’s program, the ensemble’s twofold vision is to provide a platform for emerging talent and to include in their projects music by living or underrepresented composers.

Their debut concert at All Saints’ College on the weekend featured Stravinsky’s chamber piece The Soldier’s Tale (1918) alongside works by three women composers from the same period. 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death, and given the debut of The Soldier’s Tale was impacted by the Spanish flu lockdown, Winley thought it seemed timely to program the piece. The program was engrossing, and revealed as much about music history as it did about the performers.

Germaine Tailleferre was the only woman in the collective of composers known as “Les Six”. Her Quatuor á Cordes is a string quartet of three exquisitely-crafted miniatures, music that should be heard far more often. Tailleferre’s mood changes were conveyed with alert authority by Rachael Aqualina and Susannah Williams on violins, Alix Hamilton on viola and Anna Sarcich on cello.

It was also a treat to hear the music of Lili Boulanger (Nadia Boulanger’s younger sister, who died tragically young), which is rarely performed live. D’un Matin de Printemps, performed by violinist Runa Murase accompanied by Adrian Soares on piano, lacked rhythmic conviction in the opening but the Ravelian syncopations and skipping energy built to a thrilling conclusion.

Daniella Sicari sings Rebecca Clarke’s ‘Three Songs’, accompanied by Adrian Soares. Photo: Bethany Tippett

Rebecca Clarke’s Three Songs were less compelling — the British-American composer’s floating open harmonies and long phrases had a dreamy monotony — although they were performed with poise by soprano Daniella Sicari (a graduate from the WA Academy of Performing Arts and Royal Northern College of Music) whose attractive voice (and a fleeting glimpse at her luxuriously rich top end) left me wanting more.

The multi-talented Sicari took on the role of narrator for The Soldier’s Tale, her skilful accents and mannerisms leaving no doubt as to the personalities and foibles of each of the three characters. She was joined by an instrumental septet (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion) conducted by Winley.

The Russian folk tale about a soldier returning home on leave and being waylaid by the Devil unfolds as a series of musical interludes. Stravinsky embeds a variety of styles — including chorales, klezmer, dance numbers and ragtime — within his multi-layered, rhythmically fragmented approach to composition. Winley’s steady hand through the constantly changing time signatures allowed the ensemble to capture the off-kilter pulse and quirky interjections. Violinst Semra Lee-Smith generated immense rhythmic propulsion and the ensemble matched her energy, sustained throughout Stravinsky’s exposed and unpredictable writing.

I was struck by the relevance of the plot and its message of the deceptive lure of possessions. “Things that are warm inside are the things worth having” discovers the Soldier, too late. “What can I do to have nothing again?”

Sicari’s broad strine accent gave the Soldier extra familiarity, as he wrestled with how to return to simplicity. His failure to do this in the final moments of the piece is telling; a century later we still haven’t learned this lesson.

Winley shows a gift for curatorial direction; an ear for selecting music from the past that will speak to our present. There was much to appreciate from this debut program, and, I suspect, much more to come from this ensemble. 

More information about the Banksia Ensemble can be found here.

Pictured top: Jen Winley conducts the Banksia Ensemble performing ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ in their debut concert. Photo Bethany Tippett

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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