I had the faintest of hopes that we would get through the night’s concert, a series of new works for orchestra culminating in Australian composer Brett Dean performing his own Viola Concerto, without succumbing to our primordial instincts and telling viola jokes. But sure enough, during some stage banter with the composer the Maestro quipped at how it’s larger size meant we would have to hang around longer were we to wait for it to burn; a trombonist guffawed, the audience tittered haughtily, and a slurry of violists rolled their eyes to let us know they had heard it before and won’t all of you be sorry when Mr. Dean finally picks up his bow.
Dean’s Viola Concerto opened up with a short movement he describes as a satellite that introduced us to some of the colors and melodic material that was to come. In retrospect, it would have been easy enough to just cruise along for the ride without getting sucked into the composer’s game of melodic invention as the piece has a very intuitive and intensely dramatic arc to it. However, Brett has an improviser’s mind for melodic invention that leads into such a seductively stitched thicket that it was a pleasure to get lost and try and find our way out again.
The second movement screamed past us like a satellite falling out of orbit. At one point, Dean was playing a series of leaping trills that were colored by percussive snaps from the first desk of each string section; an all-too-literal image of the viola as the victim and the rest of the strings as her schoolyard antagonists. The composer had alluded to the historical tradition of the the cadenza (A short unaccompanied section for the soloist to be featured while the orchestra salivates hungrily like a baboon waiting to pounce on impulse items in the checkout line) in his on-stage talk with the Maestro. The cadenza’s traditional setup is inherited by the form’s forefathers and like any well trod path it’s usually seen coming a mile away. In Brett’s piece the cadenza came at us like a sucker punch in a nursery and left us panting for more.
I remember the words of a composer whose name I can’t remember, which should make you wonder at the depths I have to stoop for my quote mining, saying that you should always start and end a piece at an extreme of some kind. Put simply, either give the audience a bang that jolts their spouses awake or peter out quietly at a nipple pinching pianissimo. Brett’s concerto ends with a series of exquisite glass sighs dyed delicate by the orchestra that serve as a well balanced counterweight to the fisticuffs earlier on.
Great concert, where were you?