BORN: October 23, 1961. Brisbane, Australia. Currently lives in Melbourne
WORLD PREMIERE: For the orchestral version played at these concerts—June 20, 2014. David Robertson conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney, Australia. For the original band version—November 15, 2013. Fred Speck led the University of Louisville Wind Symphony at Comstock Concert Hall, University of Louisville School of Music, Louisville, KY
US PREMIERE: At these performances
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—At these performances
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass and double bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, cymbals, tubular bells, small tuned gong, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, tam-tam, crotales, mark tree, piano, harp, and strings
DURATION: About 10 mins
THE BACKSTORY Our program could be said to begin and end with Johannes Brahms. The impetus for many of Brett Dean’s compositions comes from sources in other arts and from reflecting on current realities, whether involving politics or technology’s unrelenting grip on our lives. But his deep-rooted, sophisticated knowledge of music history itself also serves as a catalyst for particular works, including the piece that opens our program. Engelsflügel (Wings of Angels) is a later version of a piece for wind band that itself grew from ideas Dean had recently explored in a set of brief compositions paying homage to the piano music of Johannes Brahms.
Dean actually began his musical career as a performer: In 1984, still in his early twenties, he moved from his native Brisbane to Berlin and became a permanent member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s viola section for fourteen years. Just a few years into his tenure, Dean began channeling his gifts first into arrangements and then into original composition. One of his best-known works is Carlo (1997), for strings and electronics—performed at Davies Symphony Hall in 2009—which also reflects on the musical past. In this case, Carlo reflects on the late Renaissance composer and aristocrat Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), an interesting figure who might be imagined as an early case for “bad people making great art.” Gesualdo possessed a bold harmonic imagination far ahead of his time; he also murdered his first wife and her lover in a fit of rage.
Carlo points to an original way of looking at the art of the past that Dean has cultivated in his abundant and versatile body of work. It also manifests a dramatic sensibility that has found expression in two operas, the more recent of which took on no less a challenge than adapting Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Commissioned by Glyndebourne Opera and premiered there to great acclaim last summer—The Guardian declared that “new opera doesn’t often get to sound this good”—Hamlet just had its Australian premiere in March. Meanwhile, in addition to his season-long residency as “creative chair”at the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, Dean has a new piece, Notturno inquieto, that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic will introduce in just a few weeks.
Brett Dean, who also continues to have a thriving career as a solo violist, belongs to the elite roster of winners of the Grawemeyer Award, among the most lucrative distinctions in the classical music world. He was chosen in 2009 for his violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing. It illustrates another of the composer’s concerns—the influence on technology on our lives—and deploys the concerto format to address how a side-effect of the Internet era has been to make letter-writing an endangered species.
THE MUSIC When he was visiting the University of Louisville in 2009 to receive the Grawemeyer Award, Dean encountered Frederick Speck’s Wind Symphony. He recalls the pleasure of hearing the players “in full flight; confident, marvelous playing of strong and robust music. It’s such a wonderful tradition in American universities and Louisville seems particularly well catered for in this regard, with great players and excellent teaching and direction.” Considering what direction he wanted to take for his commission, Dean remarks that “from the outset [I thought] it would be fascinating to write a somewhat atypical piece for an ensemble of such potent sonic potential: quiet, fragile music that only hints momentarily at the latent power within its instrumental line-up.”
Dean had been working on a set of compositions for solo piano in which he pays homage to his composer predecessors, including Johannes Brahms—specifically, to the Brahms represented by his late solo piano music. Titled Etude: Hommage à Brahms (2013) and written for Emanuel Ax, Dean’s piano tribute is in three sections, the outer ones named “Engelsflügel” 1 and 2, and the central one “Hafenkneipenmusik" (“Harbor Pub Music”). Dean designed these as independent pieces to be interpolated between the four numbers comprising Brahms’s introspective, late-period Four Pieces for Piano, Opus 119.
Dean writes that he derived “particular inspiration from accompanying textures and figurations as found in Brahms’s duo sonatas and lieder. Taking into account aspects of Brahms personal life, and specifically the long and complicated relationship he had with Clara Schumann, these homage-pieces emerge out of the idea of a line or part that’s absent, the person not by his side. It is music that grows out of accompanying figurations yet takes on a life of its own, shining a light on Brahms’s poignantly melancholic Opus 119 pieces.”
When it came to writing Engelsflügel for winds, brass, and percussion, Dean found that this exploration of these “very particular accompanying figurations” triggered new ideas, resulting in “a short essay in mostly hushed, inward, even flighty textures.” The new Engelsflügel “took on a life of its own as I investigated the many timbral possibilities of this ensemble. The music oscillates between secretive whispers, cascading wind arpeggios, and austere, almost funereal brass chorales.”
Dean has extended that process with the fully orchestral Engelsflügel .Indeed, the “fragility” here, in the context of such a large ensemble, becomes all the more remarkable, revealing its “latent power” in moments of which the effect is similarly enhanced
Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs about the arts at memeteria.com.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Fred Speck conducting the University of Louisville Wind Ensemble at the 2015 WASBE Conference (Mark Records and bit.ly/Engelsflugel)
Reading: No book-shaped studies on the music of Brett Dean are available. In the general neighborhood are: New Classical Music: Composing Australia, by Gordon Kerry (University of New South Wales Press) and Experimental Music: Audio Explorations in Australia, edited by Gail Priest (University of New South Wales Press) | Brett Dean is interviewed about receiving the 2009 Grawemeyer Award (bit.ly/DeanGrawemeyer)
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