Aussie composer Brett Dean returns to Ireland with Irish Chamber Orchestra

Aussie composer Brett Dean returns to Ireland with Irish Chamber Orchestra
Brett Dean plays Cork School of Music on Thursday, as well as Dublin and Limerick. Picture: Bettina Stoess

Australian composer and violist Brett Dean plays in Cork and other Irish centres, writes Cathy Desmond

“What's the difference between a viola soloist and East Germany? Both are desperate for recognition.”

On the phone from his London base, Australian composer and violist is sharing his favourite viola joke with me, a vintage of the genre gleaned from the 1980s when he left his native Brisbane in his twenties to join the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the then divided German city.

Lack of recognition is not a feature in Dean’s own story. Now one of Australia’s most successful cultural exports, Dean has forged a career as a sought-after contemporary composer, travelling the world with his viola and catalogue of scores.

Last in Ireland in 2018 to perform his viola concerto with the RTÉ NSO, Dean returns this week to make his performing debut with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in a series of concerts in Limerick, Cork and Dublin. The reflective programme, which the composer will direct from the orchestra explores the music of mourning.

The programme opens with the rarely heard Mozart’s ‘Masonic Funeral Music’ and then alternates five evocative miniatures by Dean with string arrangements of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.

“The original brief from the Australian Chamber Orchestra was to try and capture the essence of a musical idea in as short a period of time and as short a structure.”

Dean is talking about his ‘Short Stories’ that act as intermezzos. A glance through Dean’s colourful titles hint at inspiration drawn from politics, literature and visual art.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the work of Heinrich Boll and the early works of Ian McEwan and Peter Carey who found their feet through short stories.” (Nobel Prize winner, Boll himself was a himself a frequent visit to Ireland and had a cottage on Achill Island which remains a writers’ retreat.)

It as much a reflection on miniatures in music. I was hugely inspired by the composer, Kurtag who has made the miniature quite a special thing of his own.

Dean is unusual in having a high-level performing career behind him before establishing himself as a composer and his apprenticeship came through unconventional routes. As a viola player, being embedded in the middle of one of the world’s best orchestras for more than a decade gave him an inside track on the craft.

“I became more and more fascinated by the processes. Playing in the orchestra, surrounded by so many great musicians became a laboratory and a learning ground for me,especially when we were doing contemporary repertoire.”

No surprise there but another practice ground is much more left of field. “It was through improvising with a rock musician, Simon Hunt in a Berlin band that I really got the bug.” Hunt later returned to Australia and became well known for his satirical songs as drag queen Pauline Pantsdown, usually pillorying political figures.

In the early stages of his composing career, Dean worked on arrangements of works for instrumental ensemble which he says was in effect “a composing laboratory of its own.” This programme is in some ways an homage to the underrated craft of the arranger.

“Mozart in his twenties was introduced to the work of JS Bach by Viennese diplomat Baron von Swieten. He picked them up and ran with them arranging many Bach fugues and writing preludes to them himself. The programme will explore some of those in arrangements for quartet and string orchestra.”

Also included is an adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony in a recent arrangement by Michelle Castelletti for chamber orchestra. Dean will don his virtuoso hat to play the solo viola part in Paul Hindeminth’s Trauermusik, written after the death of King George V in 1952.

“It is a sombre but especially beautiful programme and I am looking forward to bringing it all together.”

Short Stories: Brett Dean directs the Irish Chamber Orchestra: Weds, Monkstown Parish Church, Dublin; Thurs, CIT Cork School of Music; Fri, St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick; See www.irishchamberorchestra.com

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