Brett Dean is a composer who is not afraid to make to make sociological and political comment through his music, and the European premiere of this BBC co-commission, Vexations and Devotions, is not any different. Described by Dean as a 'sociological cantata' the work, which was first performed at Perth International Arts Festival in the composer's native Australia in 2006, is intended to critique de-humanising aspects of modern life and features an automated telephone voice as well as texts such as:
You can count on us
One hundred percent
To globally coordinate excellent
And cutting edge, cost effective methods of empowerment
The low opening rumbles of the piano and strings and choral mutterings immediately grab attention, and the breadth of percussion scoring is impressive. Conductor David Robertson did a noteworthy job of integrating choirs, orchestra and soundtrack to give an organicism to each movement that contemporary works, particularly those involving electronics, can often lack, and the dark humour in the piece did not go unnoticed, as occasional laughter floated throughout the audience. Unfortunately, the amalgamation of three movements - the central movement, part of an earlier collaborative work, forms the basis of this piece - was apparent and musical gesture took the place of the structural coherence, such as that found in Dean's wonderful Pastoral Symphony from 2001.
Indeed, the second movement, 'Bell and Anti Bell', was the strongest part of the work, all the more remarkable for the stunning Australian National Children's choir, Gondwana Voices, who performed with absolute commitment and conviction, receiving a well-deserved ovation at the end of the work. They delivered close harmonies with supreme precision and sang in beautiful pure voices that threatened to eclipse the BBC Symphony Chorus, as well as providing percussive effects, at one point breaking into a playground hand-clapping game.
Nonetheless, Dean's orchestrations and movements into new sound worlds that so directly engage contemporary thought and audiences will surely secure this composer's future in contemporary repertoire.
Although the programme notes proclaimed, rather tenuously, that Dean's sociological cantata 'shares a social conscience with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7', the symphony perhaps suffered from the order of the concert programming. Symphony No 7 has never been high on my list of favourite Beethoven symphonies, and unfortunately the BBC Symphony Orchestra did little to convince me otherwise. It was a good performance, but lacked the playfulness that a symphony Wagner described as the 'apotheosis of the dance' deserved.
Again, Robertson's energetic conducting was commendable but did not translate to the orchestra. The first movement was a touch too slow for the Vivace tempo marking and felt sluggish, and the second movement, whilst beginning with a majestic tone, needed more rhythmic bounce.
There was an improvement for the last two movements but an injection of vigour would have benefited the Presto to drive it forward with the mischievousness of a Beethovenian scherzo. It was not until the final movement that more rhythmic clarity emerged, yet the conveyance of the first triple forte written in orchestral music was lost on a modern audience. The presence of the BBC Symphony Chorus on stage was initially confusing - a daring attempt to rewrite history, or perhaps the suggestion of a later encore? - yet turned out to be nothing more than a perplexing addition to stage scenery.