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Last Night in L.A.: Brett Dean (Part 1)

Six years ago, Sequenza21 published an interesting interview with Brett Dean.  The violist who was once the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic was beginning to be recognized as a composer.  This was about the time he made his first appearance with members of the LA Philharmonic in a “Green Umbrella” concert of new music, performing his work “Intimate Decisions” for viola.  S21, typically prescient, gave a lede to the interview stating that if you hadn’t heard of Dean yet, “You will.  You will.”

This season Dean is the first contemporary composer to be given a spotlight by the LA Phil, in two programs.  Yesterday’s subscription concert featured Dean’s “Viola Concerto” (2005) with the composer as soloist and the full orchestra conducted by Salonen.  Salonen brought out a microphone to introduce Dean to the audience, commenting on how rare (these days) it is to hear a composer performing his own concerto, much less to be so accomplished in both performance and composition. The Phil was one of the co-commissioners for this significant work.  Dean relates that it was initially written as only two movements, but that he then felt the piece needed an introductory movement to provide a frame-setting for the musical ideas.

The first movement, “Fragment”, establishes Dean’s sound, quietly growing in space.  “Pursuit” then places the solo viola in a chase with the orchestra.  Dean’s notes for the work refer to this movement as what could have happened if Paul Hindemith had played in a band with Tom Waits, an interesting idea.  There are occasional respites from the chase, including a lovely and technically-demanding cadenza which also includes elements of bird calls.  The relationship to Australia’s spaciousness and to its birds is a recurring element in several of Dean’s compositions.  “Veiled and Mysterious” returns us to space and quiet of the first movement.  The viola seems to meditate, and then it leads the orchestra into a re-examination of ideas of the first two movements.  The viola, finally at peace, enters into a closing dialog with the English horn.

Dean made great use of sonic color from his orchestra, and the sound in Disney Hall was responsive.  In the third movement, for example, a solo cello begins the orchestral accompaniment, with tremolo from violas; a second solo cello joins in, then a third, then a fourth.  Other strings join the tremolo and then add their own lines.  Bowed percussion add cool, metallic sounds to color the interactions.  This is attractive music, music willing to be introspective as well as active, music able to take advantage of quiet as well as to build sound.

The program for the concert built in color.  Haydn’s Symphony 82 (“The Bear”) began the program.  Following intermission, Salonen conducted a sonic spectacular bringing out every possible color in Ravel’s orchestration of “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

On Saturday, the LA Opera did a really good job of community outreach.  They presented two performances of a new work “Concierto para Mendez” with music by Lee Holdridge and libretto by Richard Sparks.  This is a musical celebration of the life of the trumpeter Rafael Mendez; it combines elements of documentary, opera, and concerto for trumpet.  Soloists from the Opera provided the singers and the LA Opera Orchestra provided the musical continuity and support.  Mendez had an amazing life:  dragooned into Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army as a trumpeter at the age of 10; immigrant to the United States as a laborer at 20; discovered as a musician and becoming a member of the Russ Morgan and Rudy Vallee orchestras; injured in an accident and having to readjust and retrain his embouchure; first chair trumpet for the MGM Orchestra, the best of the studios, at 35; starting a life as soloist and teacher at 40.  Six local trumpet students were selected to appear as his students in the work.  The performances were free.