Celebrating Brett Dean

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Published: 13th November, 2018

Celebrating Brett Dean was as much a celebration of Australian music and the Australian National Academy of Music as the illustrious composer/ conductor/ viola player himself.

As Dean explained during a short speech after interval, this concert was all the more remarkable considering the difficult circumstances under which it was prepared. Since ANAM’s home of South Melbourne Town Hall has been closed due to the devastation caused by a burst water pipe, the students have been without practice rooms and their normal rehearsal space. He was enthusiastic in his admiration and praise for how they met the challenges for an entire evening of Australian orchestral music.

His pointed comment about receiving more success out of Australia than at home was a telling moment – a plea for greater support of Australian composers. Along with so many other musicians he paid tribute to the invaluable contribution of the late lamented Richard Gill, in particular the way he gave ANAM students “the chance to experience what it’s like to sing together”. There were many in the audience who would have said a silent but heartfelt amen to “Thank you Richard, we miss you”. But it was the music itself that really spoke for him.

The first half of the program comprised Clouds Now and Then, by Richard Meale and Brett Deans’ From Melodious Lay, which drew on material from his opera based on Hamlet. Meale’s work evokes the essence of a haiku by the 17th century poet, Matsuo Bashō, about moon-viewing. His eight-minute work is as concise as its source of inspiration. An atmospheric, reflective piece, it left me, and the person sitting next to me, wanting to hear it all over again immediately after the last shimmer had faded away.

From Melodious Lay would have been the main attraction for many members of the audience, especially those of us who had not made the journey to the Glyndebourne Festival to hear the spectacular première of Dean’s Hamlet or its Australian première in Adelaide. What we did have was a major consolation. As the program notes advised us, this 23-minute piece is “an exploration of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, diffracted through a liberal redistribution of texts both spoken by these characters, or spoken about them by other characters”. The intermediaries are a soprano and tenor, who voice the words of characters ranging from the protagonists to Hamlet’s mother and Ophelia’s father. Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia, “The most beautified Ophelia” is one of six vocal movements divided by a central orchestral movement. Lorina Gore was at her radiant best, scaling the heights of Dean’s exacting score with vocal beauty and apparent ease. Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu also gave a musically and dramatically persuasive account of his various roles. Obviously inspired by the composer, the large orchestra impressed with disciplined and expressive playing under his baton. I only hope that those who missed out on the earlier performances of Dean’s arresting and inventive work will be able to hear the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Hamlet Live in HD next year.

Ophelia’s “melodious lay” of course relates to her slow death by drowning and a similar watery theme could be heard in the two works that followed interval. In his talk, Brett Dean spoke about the element of water that provided a source of inspiration for the following two pieces: Lisa Illean’s Land’s End and Georges Lentz’s Jerusalem (after Blake).

Illean describes her work in terms of “sounds comprised of hushed repetitive fragments”. Unlike the huge forces needed for Dean’s work, Illean employs a pared back ensemble of nine strings, harp, piano and a handful of brass and wind instruments. Haunting descending scales evoked an ocean that breathed with a plaintive lapping of waves. It is a subtle, mesmerising work.

Three of the four programmed works have literature as an integral part of their creation. As its title indicates, Lentz was inspired by the ground-breaking poetry and visual art of William Blake, particularly his so-called Prophetic Books and his last extraordinary book, Jerusalem. The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Lentz’s depiction of big concepts – the ends of worlds and massive forces that move waters of unfathomable depth – require massive orchestral forces. In addition to those on stage, an array of brass and percussion played from the back of the stalls and from a side balcony at Apocalyptic climaxes. Interspersed were gentler movements of water. In stark contrast to the almost primitive tumult of the opening section, the final slowly fading sound of mobile phones, that had recorded some of the earlier music, was a poignant reminder of lives tragically lost at sea. Lentz dedicated the end of the work to the victims of MH370, the plane that disappeared without a trace on March 2014. The prolonged silence that followed reflected the emotional power of both the work and the quality of the performance.

If anybody in the audience had any doubts about the excellence of Australian composition or the talent of emerging Australian musicians, this concert would have assured them that we have a great deal to be proud of. It is alarming to think we might have lost ANAM had it not been for Brett Dean’s passionate advocacy during his tenure as Artistic Director. Having him join the wonderful Kyla Matsuura-Miller in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for what was the ANAM Orchestra’s final concert for the year was a reminder of this potential loss. Against a background of beaming young musicians, the gorgeous blend of a gifted student’s violin and the velvety viola tones of a master musician were really something to celebrate.

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Heather Leviston attended “Celebrating Brett Dean” on November 9 and the “Mostly Mozart” concert on November 13, 2018 at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Both concerts were presented by The Australian National Academy of Music in partnership with the Melbourne Recital Centre.