Brett Dean began composing in 1988, initially working on film, radio and improvisatory projects and went on to establish himself as a composer through works such as his Clarinet Concerto ‘Ariel’s Music’ (1995), which won an award from the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers, a Piano Quintet ‘Voices of Angels’ (1996) and ‘Twelve Angry Men’ for 12 cellos (1996). His most widely-known work is ‘Carlo’ for strings, sampler and tape (1997), inspired by the music of Carlo Gesualdo.
Other scores have been commissioned by major ensembles including the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestras. Dean returned to Australia in 2000, since when his Song Cycle ‘Winter Songs’ won the 2001 Paul Lowin composition Prize. He was invited to be Composer in Residence for the Cheltenham Festival in 2003, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra during 2003-2004. It was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra that performed his ‘Moments of Bliss’ which was awarded 'Best Composition' at the 2005 Australian Classical Music Awards. His Viola Concerto was premiered that year by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London with Dean as soloist.
In 2006, he was appointed as Artistic Director of the Australian National Academy of Music www.anam.com.au and, in 2011, was awarded the Queensland Conservatorium Alumnus of the Year www.griffith.edu.au/music/queensland-conservatorium/alumni at the inaugural Arts, Education and Law Alumni Awards. Brett Dean’s compositions include an opera and a ballet, choral and vocal music, orchestral works, concertos and chamber music. The works of Brett Dean have attracted considerable attention, not only having been championed by conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, but also through recordings with labels such as ABC Classics and BIS Records.
It is BIS Records www.bis.se that have recently issued a recording of Brett Dean’s award winning Violin Concerto ‘The Lost Art of Letter Writing’ together with Testament for 12 violas and Vexations and Devotions for choir, children’s choir, large orchestra and electronics. These works, on a generously filled 86 minute disc, are performed by the concerto’s dedicatee, Frank Peter Zimmermann www.ks-gasteig.de/kuenstleragentur/kuenstler/violine/frank-peter-zimmermann/biografie/index.html with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra www.sydneysymphony.com conducted by Jonathan Nott www.askonasholt.co.uk/artists/conductors/jonathan-nott (Violin Concerto), the BBC Symphony Orchestra (viola section) conducted by Martyn Brabbins www.intermusica.co.uk/brabbins (Testament) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus www.bbc.co.uk/orchestras Gondwana Voices www.gondwanachoirs.com.au conducted by David Robertson www.opus3artists.com/artists/david-robertson (Vexations and Devotions).
BIS - 2016
The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2006, rev. 2007), winner of the 2009 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, was commissioned by the Cologne Philharmonie and the Stockholm Philharmonic for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, to whom the work is dedicated.
The concerto is related to the composer’s feeling that, in this digital age, we are losing touch with the tactile element of written communication. Each movement is prefaced by an excerpt from a 19th Century letter ranging from a private love-letter to a public manifesto.
Hamburg, 1854 refers to one of classical music’s great secret romances, that between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. The violin enters over a hazy, shifting orchestral sound. Slowly the music becomes more animated as the orchestral accompaniment becomes more clear and transparent. Tempo changes abound as the theme rapidly moves forward with varying orchestral textures. A Brahmsian theme briefly appears from the texture leading to a slower, quiet section; but soon the music speeds up with some remarkably fine playing from Frank Peter Zimmermann. At times there are some magical violin sounds as well as a fantastical rising and falling section for violin. So much is going on in this engrossing music that it reveals more with each hearing. Brahms makes another appearance towards the end.
The Hague, 1882 takes its cue from a line from a letter of Vincent van Gogh, reflecting upon the eternal beauty of nature as being a constant in his otherwise troubled and unstable life. The orchestra rises from a hushed beginning as the violin joins, creating lovely textures and harmonies against the orchestra. Eventually the music becomes more dramatic and passionate, working out of the theme before a climax for orchestra is reached. The soloist re-joins as the music calms in a melodically beautiful section that is quite magical. The soloist and orchestra weave lovely sounds as the music gently works its way to a resigned conclusion.
Vienna, 1886 is taken from a song cycle by Brett Dean entitled Wolf-Lieder. It is a setting of an excerpt from one of Hugo Wolf’s letters to a close personal friend, again an outpouring from a life of affliction. A falling motif for orchestra opens the movement before the soloist joins, lifting the music up. A flute passage adds to the unsettled nature of the orchestral accompaniment, the violin having a tense, pleading nature and, despite a softer moment as the movement progresses, it ends on an anxious, tense note.
Jerilderie, 1879 takes as its theme the famous Jerilderie Letter of the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly who wrote this letter in the small rural town of Jerilderie in 1879 as a public manifesto in order to articulate his pleas of innocence and desire for justice for both his family and other poor Irish settlers.
The movement opens with frantic chords from the solo violin with an agitated orchestral accompaniment that soon gives way to a less intense passage. The frantic music soon re-appears and builds to a peak before the intense theme returns. Later strange, rather disjointed harmonies appear for the soloist, as though indicating a manic edge to the character. The music rises to another climax before a passage for solo violin over strange, quiet orchestral harmonies, where the violin plays the frantic theme over the quieter more static orchestra. This rather schizophrenic music, violent, pleading, angry and manic leads to another climax before arriving at a violent coda.
Testament for 12 violas (2002) was written for Dean’s former colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonic’s viola section and was inspired by the idea of Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament and the sound of the composer’s quill as he wrote, quietly, feverishly and manically on sheets of parchment.
Quietly scurrying sounds open the piece, becoming more agitated and flying in different directions as the music progresses. The music soon quietens with odd little phrases from a solo viola against the rest of the ensemble that provide quieter scurrying sounds. Slowly the music achieves a more long breathed melody but falls back to quiet ruminations. Strange sounds continue until firming up with a clearer motif, rising and falling from the diffuse background, as the familiar sound of a Beethovenian theme arises from the mists, a glimpse of the String Quartet, Op.59 No.1 ‘Rasumovsky’, but the mists move in as we are returned to the opening atmosphere. Suddenly the music erupts into violent chords and, even after it calms, the music pushes ahead, often with the feel of a known melody trying to emerge. As the music develops there is a quiet background of violas with more strident violas playing over the top, often pizzicato. Eventually the strident chords push the music forward until they scurry in a downward motif before quietening. The insistent motif is still there up until the sudden end.
Vexations and Devotions for SATB choir, children’s choir, large orchestra and electronics (2005) was commissioned by the UWA Perth International Arts Festival, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms and Wesfarmers.
The composer writes that ‘A significant factor common to these varied vexatious tendencies…was to be found in the erosion of a sense of organic language…(the) contexts reveal a significant gap between the words used and the meanings behind them.’
The first movement, Watching Others, sets a text by the Australian poet, Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) concerning the quiet, contemporary despair and loneliness of watching others on television. A piano together with the lower section of the orchestra and chattering voices are merged at the opening of this work before shouts from the chorus. The orchestra develops a forward moving theme that darts around as the choir sings a setting of the text, becoming more dynamic. Quieter passages are interrupted by scurrying music, full of nervous energy before, eventually, the smooth blended sound of the choir enters on the words ‘The loneliness, the loneliness.’ Dean creates a remarkable tapestry of colours and textures from the orchestra as the choir and children’s choir continue, rising in intensity until falling back into chattering voices as the music descends to the coda.
Bell and Anti-Bell concerns the alienating nature of modern communication systems. Here the electronically reproduced voice of an automated answering service stands as the symbol of our furthering estrangement from one another. The movement opens with shimmering, scurrying strings and a myriad of percussion. After the full orchestra leads to a climax with tam-tam, the music quietens with strange sounds emerging from the gloom, bell sounds imitating a telephone ring. The orchestra re-joins before a recorded voice enters, narrating the words ‘We are sorry, all our lines are busy at present.’ This bizarre yet highly effective idea continues as the electronic recorded telephone messages alternate with the ringing of a bell with occasional orchestral contributions. Soon the choirs appear over the recorded voice with the words ‘Sweet secret peace, real and right and true…’
The music becomes quite powerful at as the choir becomes more impassioned before being suddenly cut off by the recorded words ‘Thank you for waiting…please keep holding and do not give up hope. Your holding is important to us. Holding is important to all of us.’ There are scurrying strings with the chorus singing against the recorded text before the orchestra plays insistent discords. The last few texts are chanted by the children’s choir with clapping of hands before the choir and orchestra lead to the coda that suddenly drops to a hushed orchestra.
The Path to Your Door looks at the contemporary business mission statement, with its ‘lofty, bloated words, largely signifying nothing but a striving for financial reward, if not outright greed.’ Woodwind open in a tranquil melody, with the vibraphone adding a mystic quality as the choir quietly enters in this other worldly music. A little upward rising motif appears as timpani beat a pulse. The choir then enters at with the words ‘We envision to assertively pursue world class and high yield solutions…’ The choir continue singing this banal, meaningless text, just as though the words actually mean something important. The music rises to a climax before the children’s choir take up the words ‘The path to your door is the path within…’ signalling a meaningful message that contrasts with the banal words of corporate jargon. Gentle orchestral sounds lead to a quiet coda with occasional, gentle little outbursts from the orchestra.
Perhaps, at times, this is more theatre than a concert experience yet it is an extremely effective piece, often powerful and brilliantly orchestrated. All these performances are well recorded at their different venues. There are full texts and English translations as well as informative booklet notes.