The Marais Project has been celebrating little-known European music for over 20 years with a repertoire of folk and contemporary music incorporating the unique instrument the viola da gamba. In The Fantastical Life of Daniel Solander, the Marais Project turned their attention to the first Swedish man to step on Australian shores with the likes of Captain James Cook.
The program introduced Daniel Solander and his credentials as a scientist before following his exploits as an explorer in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia, then known as New Holland. Using Swedish songs from the time, Australian colonial songs, and extracts from the journals of Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks selected by Philip Pogson, the program recreated the atmosphere of the 18th century and Solander’s life of adventure and scientific exploration.
The trio of Susie Bishop on voice and violin, Tommie Andersson on guitar, and Jenny Eriksson on viola da gamba, began slowly with two poems by Swedish poet Carl Michael Bellman with music arranged by Andersson. Despite the cheerful popularity of the two songs, they felt rather melancholic compared to the following “Polska from Fu”, a jaunty dance number that livened up the feeling of cheer and excitement as Solander began his journey. Other stand-out songs included another polka “Catadon Polka” by George Strong, the bold and violin-heavy “Gullklimpen (The Golden Nugget)” by Timas Hans Hansson, and the solo guitar performance of Johan Wikmanson’s “Sonate för en Zittra” by Andersson which was hypnotising.
The extracts from Cook and Banks’s journals were well performed by Robert Snars and contributed greatly to the overall atmosphere of the concert, particularly as Snars was costumed like a learned gentleman of the era. However, it was troubling that, while there were some references to the Aboriginal nations being murdered and displaced alongside Solander’s scientific inquiry, the only voice provided for these people were two colonial poems by Irish Australian poet Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. It’s understandable to want to keep the programming contemporaneous but every representation of the colonisation of Australia is an opportunity to challenge whitewashed narratives of the time.
Overall, the Fantastical Life of Daniel Solander was a balanced celebration of the musical context for the first contact between Sweden and Australia with a program at times reflective and gentle, and at others lively. To see the Marais Project branch further out in their European and Australian musical connections is delightful and promising of more unusual programs to come.
The Fantastical Life of Daniel Solander: Australia’s First Swede was streamed online through Australian Digital Concert Hall on February 17th
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