Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Tag: Brett Dean

Macedon Music in Late Autumn

I have written before about the beautiful setting of Lowland Farm Mount Macedon for chamber music concerts. Yesterday we had the first concert for about 2 years, thanks to Covid. A tranquil, crisp late autumn afternoon and beautiful music from the Seraphim Trio (Anna Goldsworthy, Helen Ayers and Tim Nankervis), joined by violist Christopher Moore.

The first item (for piano, violin, viola and cello) was by a composer I hadn’t heard of, Dora Pejačević (1885 — 1923) who in fact was a Croatian countess: Countess Maria Theodora Paulina. Her landmark composition seems to have been her Symphony in F sharp minor, considered to be the first modern Croatian symphony. She was also the first Croatian composer to write a concerto (for piano). A film has been made of her (partly fictionalised) life: Countess Dora, 1993.

On this occasion we heard Pejačević’s Piano Quartet in D minor, Op. 25. Four fairly conventional movements: Allegro, Adagio, Minuetto/ Allegretto/ Trio, and a final Rondo/Allegro. From the opening strains of the first movement this was clearly a late Romantic piece — lyrical and contrasting themes, returning from time to time so that they sang in my head as I was transported to my imaginary early 20th century aristocratic Croatia — a drawing room after a dinner of several courses. The liveliness of the final movement was conveyed by spirited pizzicato. Pejačević also wrote many lieder, piano solos and chamber music, mainly for strings and piano.

Dora Pejačević

My favourite work on this program, by Brett Dean (b 1961) had been commissioned by the Seraphim Trio. Dean seems in touch with and able to express significant elements of our present lives, such as climate change, palliative care, and now Covid. This piece of nine interconnected short movements was written in London when Dean was recovering from and sheltering from Covid, having caught it in the relatively early days of the pandemic (March 2020). Most of the short movements of this piece were characterised by a bouyant rhythmic drive — energetic and optimistic, but there was also a stillness, shade and depth, such as in a middle section that was a tribute to Dean’s teacher at the Queensland Conservatorium, John Curro. And in another of these sections of quieter profundity we had the chilling confrontation of playgrounds without children.

Brett Dean

The final item on the program was Mozart’s Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor K478 and as we listened, we could see, through the expansive windows, a golden autumnal sunset.

Brett Dean’s Hidden Agendas String Quartet

Book-ended by a refreshing Haydn string quartet  (opus 33 no 4) and a dramatic, 21st century interpretation of Beethoven’s late quartet in C-sharp minor (opus 131), the brilliant Doric Quartet performed last night a new work by Brett Dean for Musica Viva.

Doric 1

The Doric Quartet, from England

Brett Dean is an outstanding, internationally recognised Australian composer. I have written before about the performance of his opera Hamlet .

Doric 3

Before the performance, Brett Dean came on stage and told us that he composed this piece in London just recently, during the present ‘democratic challenges’ posed by the Brexit situation in Britain. The piece was commissioned  through Musica Viva for the tenth anniverary of the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Doric 4

Brett Dean at work

It is absolutely a piece of the moment. I was on the edge of my seat most of the time. The very idea of ‘Hidden Agendas’ evokes ‘aspects of the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities, Twitter outrage, groupthink and other challenges to the democratic process in which we seem to find ourselves as we enter the 2020s’ [Limelight Magazine].

Doric 5

There are five movements. The first movement, entitled ‘Hubris’ conveys a false sense of confidence, an unease, that pervades the whole work. The music gives an expectation of change — but it doesn’t happen (reflecting, for me, very much Britain’s dealing with the European Community). By the second and third movements, ‘Response’ and ‘Retreat’, the musical lines become more fragmentary. After the third movement, before the fourth, titled ‘Self Censorship’, the players clean the resin off their strings and take up resin-free bows — resin helps the bow to grip the strings, so without it the sound is more tentative: whisperings and flutterings. Gradually, led by the ‘cello, the players start to play with resin again and embark on the fifth movement: ‘On-message’. Is it a kind of reconciliation? There is a sense of confidence, but it came across to me as a false confidence.

Doric 2

This work depicts our times: the bombardment of messages, fakeness, uncertainty. The work ends violently with finely wrought energetic aggression. I am sure that the work requires performers of the calibre of the Doric Quartet, who achieved magical contrasts in tone and dynamics with mind-blowing technical facility.

Doric 6


Australian composer Brett Dean has written an opera, Hamlet, which is being performed at the Adelaide Festival, following acclamation at Glyndebourne, UK.

hamlet 3

It is a brilliant collaboration between composer, librettist (Matthew Jocelyn) and director (Neil Armfield). I didn’t come away with the music running through my head; I came away thinking about the play, particularly Shakespeare’s language, which is used faithfully. There are no extraneous words, every word is from the play, although sometimes the sequence is changed, sometimes phrases are repeated. The very first words are, very effectively, ‘or not to be’, from ‘to be, or not to be’, which recurs as a motif later. The whole opera is captured in two acts. Inevitably some bits are cut (such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being sent to England), but the essence of the play remains and is indeed enhanced by this creation.

hamlet 1

At the conclusion of a forum about the opera it was noted that there is a wave of interest in new opera and it is becoming ‘a centre of contemporary theatrical practice’. I am not a lover of the classic operas by composers such as Puccini and Rossini. But I do like modern opera. I don’t know why this is, but I wonder whether one reason is because the traditional operas seem to use the story (often flimsy) as a vehicle for the music whereas with an opera such as Brett Dean’s Hamlet, if anything, the music enhances the story and everything is melded together to create drama. At the forum, Brett Dean commented on the frequent change of time signatures in the music: ‘the pulse of the entire story is one of unpredictability … the story is full of duplicity, doubt and danger’. He summed this up as an ‘arhythmia’. Brett Dean said that he tried to capture the music that is already in Shakespeare’s language, with a conscious desire to make sure that every moment counted.

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Brett Dean, composer

It was clear that librettist and composer had worked together very closely. Indeed, at the forum Brett Dean described how they and their partners worked together for several days individually, at first, noting what they thought to be the six essential elements in the play; these were then distilled down to the elements they all agreed on as essential.

hamlet orchestra 1

The time and place for this Hamlet was described by Brett Dean as ‘a kind of now’. Time and place don’t matter very much because the play is treated as a psychological drama: a son, obsessed with Ophelia, who ‘goes off the rails’ at the death of his father … his mother, a queen, ‘in a sandwich of political need and lust’ yet desperately wanting to help her son. Cheryl Barker said she played this role thinking of how she would react if it were her own son. Act I ends movingly; the one time when the music stops and the queen, alone, walks towards a dark back stage, sobbing.

hamlet 2

The production is brilliant. At the very beginning, a chorus is frozen around Hamlet at the grave of his father. In Act II, the ‘alas poor Yorick’ grave scene is done by means of a set that is lowered onto the stage enabling a hole that can be dug and actors can get into. When the ghost enters, everything is turned upside down or inside out.

hamlet ghost 1

The ghost, Hamlet, Gertrude

Neil Armfield had directed a production of Hamlet at Belvoir Theatre, Sydney – he sees Hamlet as a manic depressive person – it is plausible for him to act violently. Matthew Jocelyn said that having ‘taken out’ the political context, Hamlet is seen more as a domestic drama, the chorus being witnesses and a lens through which the family is seen.

hamlet ophelia 1

I certainly took away an idea of the whole. But it is necessary to mention the excellent performances of Allan Clayton, as Hamlet, Lorina Gore, as Ophelia and Cheryl Barker as Gertrude.

Two Metropolis concerts, Melbourne Recital Centre, 4th and 6th May

These concerts aimed to blend ancient and new music – it was a blending of forms and also of instruments: harpsichord and recorder, for example, playing music by composers born in the 1950s. There was also a blending of cultures, with Joseph Tawadros playing his oud with a symphony orchestra and playing Vivaldi transcribed for oud and recorder.


Brett Dean’s Carlo refers to madrigals composed by Prince Carlo Gesualdo (1560 – 1613) and uses pre-recorded vocal collages. The orchestra takes over, as Dean says, leading us ‘to altogether more 20th Century realms of sound’. He describes the music as a journey between two different time zones ‘Gesualdo’s madrigals are eventually reduced to mere whisperings of his texts and nervous breathing sounds’.

Metropolis 1

The Metropolis concert series is an opportunity to hear very recently composed music played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Earlier in the year I had attended the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Concert – a competition for new composers to write for a particular orchestral combination.  Four young composers are selected to write 10 minute pieces and two of these are selected for the Metropolis concerts. At the Cybec concert, my choice of two pieces was Static Anxiety by Stephen de Filippo and The Secret Motion of Things, by Ade Vincent. They seemed particularly fresh and engaging. The judges selected Ade Vincent’s piece and Singular Movement by Connor D’Netto. Vincent’s piece was inspired by New Atlantis by Francis Bacon – about a utopian society that revolved around a research institution where knowledge of causes and secret motions of things were studied.

Sir Francis Bacon. 2jpg

The composer says that this pursuit ‘seems particularly relevant now, as humankind stands on the precipice of creating artificial intelligence that vastly supersedes our own’. Vincent describes the music: ‘the work begins with a vast, expansive opening act that gives way to a surging and driving conclusion. I used the opportunity to explore a range of sounds and extended techniques, many of which I have not attempted before, with the ultimate aim of injecting a sense of wonder into the piece, followed by an urgent, relentless and unstoppable momentum.’

Ade Vincent

Ade Vincent

Connor D’Netto’s piece is an exploration of direction and development where each section of the orchestra is set on its own trajectory:  some instruments moved from smooth sustained sounds to short, sharp notes whereas others did this in reverse. Nothing was sudden, yet in the relatively short time provided the piece ‘traverses vastly contrasting textures and musical ideas’.

connor d'netto

Connor D’Netto

For me, a very exciting piece on the program was a transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, Opus 3, No. 6 for oud and recorder. Earlier in the evening we had been introduced to Erik Bosgraaf’s virtuoso recorder playing with an Australian premiere of a recorder concerto by Willem Jeths (born 1959). Now Bosgraaf was joined by an equally virtuosic oud player, Joseph Tawadros. With his Arabian headgear (which he also supplied for Bosgraaf) and his brother playing percussion and using no musical score he blended brilliantly with the baroque instrument and music. Tawadros seems to have a mission to promote the oud in mainstream western culture. He has lived in Sydney since he was 3, and was awarded an Order of Australia last year.
Eric BosgraafTawadros 2

Also in the two concerts we heard music by Elena Kats-Chernin, Pierre Boulez, Brett Dean, György Ligeti, J.S. Bach and Anna Meredith.

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