Feature Review: BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion – Brett Dean

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

11 a.m. Mozart Room – Brett Dean in conversation with Tom Service and including a performance by the composer of Intimate Decisions for solo viola

1 p.m.

Brett Dean



Jenavieve Moore (soprano)

Guildhall New Music Ensemble

Brett Dean

3 p.m. The Pit – Brett Dean’s opera Bliss (film); Opera Australia/directed by Neil Armfield, 2009

6 p.m. The Pit – Brett Dean in conversation with Tom Service, including a screening of Amphitheatre [Australian Youth Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder]

8 p.m.

Brett Dean


The Lost Art of Letter Writing [UK premiere]

Carlo [UK premiere of live choir version]

Fire Music [BBC co-commission with Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Australian Ballet: UK premiere]

Renaud Capuçon (violin)

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday, 17 March, 2012

Brett Dean. Photograph: Pawel Kopczynski

During the course of this invigorating day – yet another example of both the importance of the BBC in the cultural fabric of our society and the success of Total Immersion’s single-day focus on various contemporary composers – we had eight live performances, three of which were UK premieres, and two that were filmed of works by Australian violist and composer Brett Dean.

At the end of the second of his genial conversations with ever-enthusiastic Tom Service, Brett Dean remarked on how great was the BBC Symphony Orchestra, not only in its playing but also in its support over the years. Indeed it has played (and commissioned) more than any other single orchestra, with the Melbourne Symphony coming second. And yet before 11 o’clock in the morning on this Saturday I hardly knew anything about Brett Dean and his music; save that he used to be a violist in Berliner Philharmoniker. I checked back – I only caught the first of his four Prom outings (Twelve Angry Men for the twelve Berlin cellists; 27 August 2000, missing his ecological choral Vexations and Devotions (conducted by David Robertson, 22 July 2007) and the two works from 2010 season, Amphitheatre (30 July) and the original version (for recorded choir) of Carlo (Cadogan Hall, 21 August).

So I simply did not know what to expect. In short, even by the end of the morning talk, which included Dean himself performing his solo viola Intimate Decisions composed for a Berlin colleague, I knew I was utterly involved in his music. And perhaps even at the end of the day, after hearing all the varied scores, it was the sound of his own instrument in his own hands that stood out.

His works, as performed/shown here fall into a number of specific categories: there are those inspired by nature (Fire Music) or science (Polysomnography); those that relate to the musical past, usually refracting music by another composer (Wolf-lieder, Testament, The Lost Art of Letter Writing and Carlo) and those that ‘feel’ history in some sense or other (Voices of Angels – the work, by Dean’s own admission, that marks his real beginning as a composer) – and Amphitheatre; perhaps also the opera Bliss, although the fixation of the main character Harry Joy of the self-destruction, particularly regarding man’s ability to manufacture goods that are harmful to us, also has the scientific angle.

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael Tammaro

I have to say that I responded quite naturally to all of these inspirations, and knowing about them made me appreciate Dean’s music more, though I suspect his sonic world, particularly in his extraordinary ear for new sonorities, would have enamoured his music to me: they all beguile the ear without knowledge of their genesis.

Dean’s Intimate Decisions (which has never been played by the violist, Walter Küssner, who commissioned it), referenced the intricate private lives of musicians in such an orchestra as Berliner Philharmoniker (where, in passing, Dean noted there seemed to be divorce proceedings happening all the time and also how many players died within a year of leaving the orchestra), and the expression of intimate emotions. It was Dean who gave the premiere (in Leicester on 21 June 1997) and has recorded it. It is full of wonderful things: hesitations, sudden urgencies, ghostly harmonics and, most memorably, the almost inaudible repeated mutterings at the very end, where each repetition somehow has its own individual timbre as the sound dies away. Additionally fascinating was Dean’s reminiscence about taking the score to György Kürtág, whose fastidious and expert mind and ear encouraged Dean to bring out in-performance the conjunction of the work’s two principal motifs in the rocking whispering at the end.

At the start of the final concert it was the same instrument and same extraordinary ear for nuance of timbre that typified Testament, heard in its original 12-viola version (and not, as the programme had it, the later orchestral re-writing). Dean himself joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s viola section, each player armed with two bows, as the work opens with rosin-less bows, creating an aural equivalent in Dean’s mind of Beethoven scratching away with quill pen on his Heligenstadt Testament. Over a quarter-of-an-hour the music weaves a hypnotic spell, when suddenly comes into focus something recognisably Beethoven, a sonorous snatch from the first string work written by Beethoven since the Heligenstadt Testament, the ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, Opus 59/1. Blink and its gone.

Renaud Capuçon

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony makes a similarly brief but marked appearance in the first movement of the violin concerto, The Lost Art of Letter Writing, the solo part in the authoritative hands of Renaud Capuçon, which brought Dean’s interest in historical event, literature and music together. Each movement has a letter as its impetus: the first from Brahms, expressing (via a quote from One Thousand and One Nights) his love for Clara Schumann; the second from Vincent Van Gogh on the dichotomy between life and art; the third expressing the anguish Hugo Wolf felt about hurting people he loved (already an inspiration for Wolf-Lieder we’d heard earlier in the day); and, after these three measured movements, the frenetic finale encapsulating Ned Kelly’s propaganda. The won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award and here received a commanding performance.

The third movement’s Wolf letter had also formed the text of the second movement of Wolf-Lieder also written in 2006 (and revised the following year, when it was premiered by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group), which formed the final work of the lunchtime concert given by students in the Guildhall New Music Ensemble, conducted by the composer. This is not (as the title might suggest) orchestrations of some of Hugo Wolf’s many Lieder, although the first and last movements do quote directly from Spanisches Liederbuch, but rather a five-movement evocation of the tortured life of the composer, with the letter espousing his personal anguish, contemporary descriptions of his madness and a German translation of Brukowski’s When Hugo Wolf Went Mad forming the inner movements, with soprano (here Jenavieve Moore) accompanied by a large ensemble with struck and bowed percussion, harp, growling bass trombone, harp and piano. Dean’s ability to match the emotions of his words with expressive but always ear-catching music was again impressive, and the playing of the young forces was impeccable.

More musical time-travel came in Carlo, utilising Carlo Gesualdo madrigals in a cocoon of typically textured string parts that crossed some 400 years of humanity as Dean explores the fascination and horror of the composer-cum-murderer. Originally written for recorded voices and the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s strings, last year Dean created an all-live version, here given its UK premiere, the BBC Singers quickly veering from Gesualdo’s already extraordinary harmonics to tut and stutter with Ligeti-like vocalisms. Heard after the interval of the evening concert, this music ebbs and flows like a sonorous tide and bridges musical styles with ease.

Science and beyond formed the basis of the three other pieces we heard live. The Guildhall Ensemble’s wind and horn players, again joined by piano, recreated states of dreaming – theta and delta waves, myoclonus (limb spasms) and sleep spindles – before a final movement evocatively called ‘Dream; Sequence. This wind and piano sextet Polysomnography, which opened the lunchtime concert, proved that Dean’s years in Berliner Philharmoniker had not just afforded him great listening opportunities of string sonorities alone.

The centrepiece of the lunchtime concert introduced us to angels, inspired directly by literature – Rilke’s Duino Elegies. In two movements, Voices of Angels is a half-hour work for a quintet for piano and strings: violin, viola, cello, and double bass. At this point, even only after two works, I had come to expect, and revel in, Dean’s instrumental finesse, but was still surprised in his invention, such as the effective use of a timpani stick used to create very distinctive sounds when struck either on the piano or double bass strings, a soft hollow effect like no other. Again, the performance under the (conductor-less) young players was peerless.

On film we witnessed the seeping of an ancient history (warring tribes) through a landscape in Amphitheatre, given by the Australian Youth Orchestra under Mark Elder (at BBC Proms 2010), and the scourge of modern society in Dean’s acclaimed opera Bliss, to Amanda Holden’s expert libretto based on Peter Carey’s novel.

A gleeful satire on the advertising industry, it takes a healthy swipe at unhealthy business practices. Our hero, Harry Joy – Peter Coleman Wright in silver-grey wig and white suit – suffering a heart attack on the 20th-anniversary of his co-founding a successful advertising agency, gets a conscience and sacks one of his biggest clients for purveying carcinogenic products, and ditches his family for an ecological life in apiary with hooker Honey. We saw Neil Armfield’s vibrant production, with a constantly changing, neon-like LED background of myriad light-bulbs creating colourful backgrounds for the cinematic flow of the action, from Opera Australia’s premiere production at Sydney Opera House. While the film was perhaps too busy for the small confines of The Pit, and the volume too unremittingly loud (very rarely did we get the subtly I had come to expect from Dean, although I’m sure it’s there), this is a successful and important addition to the 21st-century’s operatic canon. And for an operatic quiz – name another opera that is titled after the very last word of its libretto…

Edinburgh was lucky to see the production in the 2010 Festival, when the band in the pit was the BBC Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Elgar Howarth, who had done the Sydney run). It would be good to hope that BBC Radio 3 would repeat the broadcast alongside Hear and Now’s relay of this Total Immersion Day from 7 April.

The dry patch of earth that slides onto Armfield’s set at the end of Bliss neatly leads us to the final work of the day, the UK premiere of Fire Music. Co-commissioned by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (which gave the premiere under Sakari Oramo) and Australian Ballet (which danced Graeme Murphy’s choreography to the piece, under the title of Infinity, this is a vibrant soundscape, with off-stage, auditorium-situated antiphonal instrumental groups (percussion, flutes, brass) and an even more distant (and occasionally amplified) string quartet – in the Barbican Hall’s Circle – that was Dean’s response to the bush fires that swept through the state of Victoria in 2009. From unearthly grumbling to peaks of fevered activity, this 32-minute work (half as long again as the suggested time in the programme) constantly wowed the ear, bringing to mind such other pivotal works as Birtwistle’s Earth Dances and, of course, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. With snare drums battling on either side of the audience, it was like a cross between Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the quiet but distinctive timbres of the string quartet adding an Ivesian dimension and Dean creating some wonderful aural effects as a flute line oscillates across the space between players at the two extremes and in the orchestra. It’s a heady mix that once again completely captivates, as every one of Dean’s work had done during this thoroughly absorbing day.

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