Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Dean Team

August 15, 2009

Brett Dean
Photo: mine 2009

Summer in Santa Fe is not all about opera. For 37 years now, its been about excellent chamber music as well, under the auspices of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival that takes advantage of the many great musicians and composers who have links to this town or may be working with the Santa Fe Opera or are just lucky enough to be invited to participate. This year is no exception, and I had the pleasure of catching a number of shows at the St Francis Auditorium downtown. The best of these shows highlighted the Festival’s commitment to contemporary music, which on Friday featured a visit from Australian violist and composer Brett Dean. In the decade following his 14 years as a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic, Dean has developed quite a growing audience for his music. He’s been in Los Angeles before for performances of his Viola Concerto as well as a number of smaller pieces for chamber-sized ensembles. Although I wasn’t completely won over then, I was still excited to see him here because he did strike me as a thoughtful and very articulate composer before.

And even though the works on Friday’s program were much smaller in scope, I felt much more convinced of Dean’s ability to write music that is both modern, educated, and at the same time readily enjoyable. He seems to be joining an ever growing group of contemporary composers like Thomas Adés who can take the lessons of the last 80 years of Western art music and create something new that has more than just academic appeal. Two of the pieces on the program were solo works. The first Intimate Decisions is for viola, and Dean played the work himself. Dean describes the work as a sort of personal conversation that ebbs and flows, but I was most taken with his masterful technique and his ability to maintain huge amounts of drama with just this single instrument as a repeating arc of notes fades at the end of the 10 minutes or so the work runs. The other solo piece Demons for solo flute was also a virtuoso test for the performer Tara Helen O’Connor. Here the many facets of the instrument were drawn out through the music like some Pandora's Box of emotion.

Brett Dean with the Orion Quartet, Tara Helen O'Connor, Felix Fan, and Andrew Russo
Photo: mine 2009

The second half of the show featured bigger works starting off with Huntington Eulogy which Dean described from the stage as a mini-Requiem for a young man associated with the Huntington Estate Winery, which hosts a music festival Dean has a long-standing association with. The sonata-like work is scored for piano and cello and evokes desert vistas and the nighttime sky in a way that was quite appropriate for Santa Fe. The performers were Felix Fan and Andrew Russo (two-thirds of the ensemble Real Quiet) and took me by surprise in how much had been packed into such a small musical space. The final piece for string quartet, entitled Eclipse was no less ambitious. Dean does not shy away from topical material in his work, and despite his stated desire that the pieces be taken simply in musical terms, he makes no bones about certain influences. The probing and at times rageful work references a refugee crisis that took place in Australia in 2001 when a number of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing in boats in an attempt to get to Australia capsized in the sea between that country and Indonesia. They were subsequently rescued by a Norwegian ship whose captain then entered a standoff with the Australian government over whether or not to let the refugees come ashore. The Orion String Quartet played beautifully here (as they had earlier in the week during a bang-up Haydn quartet). Again Dean had fashioned a piece that sounded almost orchestral with the most meager of resources.

Hearing Dean’s music again in this setting made me want to hear more of it. Luckily that appears to be in the offing soon. In fact, he’s got a major commission for his first opera from Opera Australia in 2010 for an adaptation of Peter Carey’s Bliss. Given Santa Fe’s long track record of world and American premieres, it may not be unexpected to see Brett Dean out this way again with other projects in the not-too-distant future. He’ll be playing with other ensembles in music not his own over the next two weeks at the Chamber Music Festival and I encourage everyone to check him and the other great music here out as well.

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