Friday, March 30, 2012

Total Immersion

Brett Dean

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is known as the “Associate Orchestra” of The Barbican, which is the home of the LSO - the London Symphony Orchestra. But don’t be fooled by the “associate” tag - this is no second-string orchestra. Amongst its many excellent attributes is its commitment to so-called new music, that is, contemporary compositions of what is colloquially known as “classical music”. The orchestra has also, to date, performed the works of Australian contemporary composer Brett Dean more often than any other orchestra.

And so to The Barbican one rainy Saturday (St Patrick’s Day, actually) to meet with Brett Dean and the BBC Symphony, and a few bright young things of the Guildhall Chamber Ensemble, for a day of total immersion in Dean’s work.

As a fan of his opera ‘Bliss’, and a supporter of its first production by Opera Australia in 2009, I had the skin-tingling experience of sitting one row in front of the composer while he heard his first opera performed right through (at the orchestra rehearsal) for the first time. I also heard the opera at its dress rehearsal, then in Melbourne, and in Edinburgh, where it toured for the Festival in 2010. I also went to Hamburg that year to see and hear Simone Young conduct a completely separate German production of ‘Bliss’. So you might say that I have already been pretty well immersed in Dean’s music. 

However, I wasn’t familiar with his orchestral music - now I’m a die-hard fan. Dean was a prodigy from Brisbane who ended up as a viola player with the hugely prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in his mere twenties. He has been composing since the 1990s, often for his instrument, the viola, but since the 2000s has produced a number of darkly original works, many on commission. Here’s how the day went:

At 11 am we gathered in a well-hidden room somewhere on the fourth floor of The Barbican (cross over the conservatory on a glass bridge and wind around a circular bit of the building I hadn’t before encountered) where Brett was interviewed by a journo chappie named Tom Service (not entirely sure who he was, he didn’t say - perhaps we all just should have known)...this went well. Dean is an easy interviewee, very generous with his anecdotes and reactions. The slight astonishment one felt in the room that a boy from Brissie could have had such a spectacular career was mitigated with a little ripple when Brett mentioned that his grandparents came from somewhere near Birmingham. “Ah!” you could hear the British audience thinking. “That explains it!” This session was rounded off with Brett himself performing one of his early works for solo viola, a piece called ‘Intimate Decisions’. It was - excuse the French - bloody beautiful. And that’s my review in a nutshell.

We then had an hour to refresh ourselves - I grabbed a bowl of soup - and at 1 pm it was into the Barbican Hall (the big one) for a chamber music concert by the Guildhall New Music Ensemble - a group of very talented, very young people, conducted by Brett himself. We had a flautist, a pianist, and three woodwind players, and for the later pieces a couple of strings. The first offering was called, obscurely, ‘Polysomnography’ - but all was revealed when the program explained that it consists of five movements roughly based on five cycles of sleep patterns. Mesmerising. As was ‘Voices of Angels’, inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.Then a young soprano, Jenavieve Moore, joined us for ‘Wolf-Lieder’, five movements evoking the Viennese composer Hugo Wolf (he came to a sticky end).

With a bare half-hour to spare (it’s hard work being totally immersed) we assembled in The Pit, one of The Barbican’s small film theatres, to watch a screening of ‘Bliss’. Ah! My sixth time. And very enjoyable, despite the awful quality of both the visuals and the sound - it was the ABC’s television recording, and didn’t translate too well to a bigger (though not big) screen.   

Another half-hour refreshment break, and we were back in another smaller cinema - a mere screening room, really, although without the plush seating - for another Q&A with Brett and Mr Tom Service. Included was a 10 minute screening of the Australian Youth Orchestra’s performance at the 2012 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall of Dean’s ‘Ampitheatre’.

At 8 pm the culmination of the day: big concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra themselves, under the baton of David Robertson, playing Dean. Ahhh...!

We opened with ‘Testament’, written for 12 violas - the number of violas in the Berlin Philharmonic, for whom it was written in 2002. It had the curious sound of bows with no rosin, giving a shushing sort of effect, gradually brightening up as regular rosined bows were added. And there - at viola No. 10 - who is that we espy? The composer himself. 

‘The Lost Art of Letter Writing’ (Dean is nothing if not topical) followed. This is a violin concerto of four movements, each based on a letter, written respectively by Brahms (in love with Clara Schumann), Van Gogh, Hugo Wolf and Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. The soloist was Renaud Capucon, a wonderful French violinist who appeared to enjoy himself immensely.

BBC Symphony in full flight
Photo from: 

Here's one reviewer's thoughts.

After the interval, things got heavy. The BBC Singers joined the orchestra for a choral performance of Dean’s ‘Carlo’. This is often performed with a midi recording of the voices, and the composer had told us earlier how excited he was to hear it tonight with a live chorale. Musically, I found it very dark and rather groaning. According to the program, the piece is based on the madrigals of Carlos Gesualdo who experimented in chromatic harmony in the late 16th century (rather ahead of his time), while also murdering his philandering wife and her lover (and getting away with it, but experiencing a great deal of morose remorse). Sounds like my reaction was warranted.

The finale was nothing short of spectacular. The piece was from 2011 and is called ‘Fire Music’. The inspiration for the composer was the horror of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, when over 200 lives were lost as fierce fire whipped by unpredictable winds wiped out bush townships. Dean was living in Melbourne at the time. Not only did the orchestration evoke the threat, the wind, the overwhelming conflagration, but Dean had also placed three sections of the orchestra off the stage and around the auditorium - one was above me in the circle, and two others were at each side, at the back of the stalls. Live surround-sound! When something percussive made the exact noise of a bushfire crackling through the bush just behind my right shoulder I turned, startled and afraid. The climaxes were overwhelming. It’s not often orchestral music brings a tear to my eye, but....hey! I was totally immersed. 

Photo of Brett Dean from

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