Tonight’s Prom concert opened with another London première, Amphitheatre by the Australian composer Brett Dean, who won last year’s prestigious Grawemeyer Prize. The work was composed a decade ago, and appropriately enough was presented this evening by the Australian Youth Orchestra, conducted by the effervescent Mark Elder.
The clarity of Amphitheatre‘s opening gesture is immediately undermined by the lugubrious, half-lit shapes and fragments that succeed it, the music not so much happening as lurking. Rocking chords, bizarre brass buzzes and tentative, shivering percussion paint a whoozy, intoxicated backdrop from which—eventually, suddenly—concrete ideas arise, pummelling a melody into existence, before descending (or expanding) into dense clamour that impacts the ears with a myriad colours and timbres. Things become subdued; and in an unsettling stillness, the brass quietly convulse—in this work, it seems, as the textures assume a softer quality, the more tense and spasmodic the ensuing behaviour becomes. Quieter still, and things do genuinely seem to calm down, only to be—again—finally questioned by the work’s close gesture, an unnerving, nervous tic.
It’s a highly engaging piece; not one, i feel, aided much by its title (either in terms of ‘explaining’ the piece or elucidating its ideas or methods). But nonetheless, Brett Dean seems to have tapped into a contemporary manifestation of the world, scope and even language of the best kind of programme music—although without the need for a clear or detailed programme. It’s a vivid, allusive result, allowing the imagination to be unleashed and free to roam around its highly original soundscape. Best heard with eyes shut.