Youth and experience blended at UWA’s Callaway Auditorium last weekend in a tribute to the Mendelssohn siblings, Felix and Fanny, whose varied fortunes offer a parable for the times.
Conductor Jen Winley set up Banksia Ensemble to bridge the gap between university and the professional stage — combining early career musicians with WA Symphony Orchestra principals — and also to revisit composers neglected by tradition.
Fanny’s Overture in C opened the bill; a modest work compared with younger brother Felix’s Italian Symphony, inspired by his grand tour of Europe.
But Fanny, too was an Italophile, frustrated by convention in both music and travel until her marriage to artist Wilhelm Hensel and subsequent trip to southern Europe.
She wrote many works for piano but apparently only this overture for orchestra, though some pieces ascribed to her brother have been reassigned.
From the start, horns and woodwind cued florid strings in a stately procession, rising in intensity with the addition of trumpet, then softening to a pastoral measure before breaking back.
The crisp classical palette was delicately rendered in an intimate setting, with so many young faces a reminder this time-honoured formula was once brand new.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel has enjoyed a revival in recent years as the #MeToo moment turned attention to women sidelined by centuries of disdain.
As Winley observed, Fanny lacked the benefit of trial and error with large ensembles afforded to her male counterparts, restricting her output.
Banksia Ensemble’s mission to nurture early career musicians resonates with that dilemma, to which Winley — a rising star who conducted WA Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas Spectacular in December — brings two decades of teaching and orchestral experience.
The contrast between the two works was also a lesson.
Familiar strains of the symphony’s soaring melody were buoyed by fanfare-like bursts in horns and woodwind, reinforced by trumpet, as principals traded places to let the juniors lead.
Winley was easy on the baton, encouraging rather than directing, the extra layering of melodies testament to the younger brother’s broader experience.
A surging, swirling soundscape was often reminiscent of the equally famous Hebrides Overture, the dynamics at times challenging but never exceeding the acoustics of the room.
By contrast, a minor change to the second movement injected a fatalistic tone, deftly played and eminently danceable, shades perhaps of a Sicilian wedding with Godfather-like consequences.
Another contrast in the third brought a courtly theme, the transition seamless, the players ever attentive and especially accurate in winds and brass.
Finally, the whirlwind Presto saw Winley more exercised to control tempi.
Co-ordination was tight in all sections and significantly in strings, sinewy lines snaking across the finger board. At times like these, brass and percussion have to hold steady, and the whole was brightly cohesive after just one weekend together.
In May, Banksia Ensemble will present Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, combined with a companion piece by WA composer Rebecca Erin Smith, at All Saints’ College Centre for Performing Arts.
For more information, visit banksiaensemble.com.au.