For clarinetist Paul Dean, the inspiration to found a brand new chamber music ensemble – dubbed Ensemble Q – at the Queensland Conservatorium was driven by “a real desire to get it right.”

“Every group I have been a part of in my life has had to make sacrifices either in repertoire choices or standards,” he explains, “and my partner Trish O’Brien (cello) and I just decided it was time to finally play chamber music with the best players, programme wonderful music and support young Australia musicians and composers – all to the very highest level.”

Paul Dean, Ensemble QClarinettist Paul Dean

The founding of this ensemble is full circle for Dean, who graduated from the Queensland Conservatorium himself 30 years ago, before becoming the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s youngest principal musician at the age of 21. He was Artistic Director of the Southern Cross Soloists for ten years before relocating to Melbourne to head the Australian National Academy of Music. Now Head of Wind at the Queensland Conservatorium, Dean has big plans.

“We are hoping to make Brisbane the home of chamber music in Australia, and to set a new bench mark in programming, mentoring and playing,” he says. “Queensland musicians are everywhere in the world in orchestras and chamber ensembles, thanks to the incredible legacy of the Queensland State School system, plus the legacy of John Curro and the magnificent Queensland Youth Orchestra and of course, the vitality of the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University.”

Dean has long been a champion of new music, particularly new Australian music, and this will be an important focus for the new ensemble. “There is very little else that is important in some ways,” he says. “I adore the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and the Schubert String Quintet but there is no point in programming the masterworks if it has no relevance to where we are today and where Australian composers are sitting.”

A composer in addition to being a clarinet player (not to mention the brother of violist and composer Brett Dean), the creation of new art is close to Dean’s heart. “Music is a living art not a museum piece,” he explains. “The music of the great masters would not be known today if performers didn’t have the courage to perform them in their day. We have a duty to the future of music to allow our art form to keep breathing. Organisations who just programme to satisfy the assumed tastes of the masses are killing themselves slowly. We need to keep relevant and vital whilst not being new just for being new sake.”

Paul Dean, Ensemble QPaul Dean

Another important facet of Ensemble Q is its mentorship programme. “We invite the best students and emerging artists to join us at the coal face and expect them to rise to the best levels,” Dean says. “Many of these musicians are young people I mentored at ANAM and I feel I can still play a major role in their development by offering real world experience sitting beside people like Elizabeth Layton, Daniel de Borah, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Tobias Breider, Lyndon Watts and Trish and myself.”

This idea has not come out of the blue. In addition to his years of experience as an educator, Dean has been involved in similar mentorship programmes in the past. “We have begun these mentorship programmes from within the Coramba Chamber Music Festival and the results have been staggering,” he says. “Watching and being a part of the development of the next breed of leading Australian musicians (people like Adam MacMillan, Zoe Freisburg, Natalia Harvey and Katie Yapp to name just a small sample) is the most exciting thing you can do as a musician. I believe in teaching them all to be much better than me and to lead us into a golden age of Australian music performance.”

Dean also sees chamber music as a vital way of stemming a musical brain drain to the USA and Europe. “With so few vacancies in Australian orchestras, chamber music and the opportunities given to young musicians through this medium is one of the major factors keeping these brilliant young Australian from leaving and going away and filling the orchestras of the world,” he says. “As we know through Australian World Orchestra – look at the Australian talent that has left our shores and made it big overseas. Let’s keep as many as we can here to flood our stages with brilliant, vital and exciting music making.”

Ensemble Q’s inaugural concert will feature Brahms’ Second Piano Quartet alongside Margaret Sutherland’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano – for which Dean will be joined by Adam MacMillan, the first of the programme’s mentored artists – and Messiaen’s monumental Quartet for the End of Time.

“Ensemble Q is about pursuing the best. These works allow the ensemble to flourish and to also express extraordinary deep felt emotional responses to incredible pillars of our repertoire whilst allowing the audience to see just what is possible on the concert platform,” Dean says.

Adam McMillan, Ensemble QPianist Adam McMillan

“The Brahms and Messiaen are deeply personal works and also both are slightly left of field on the chamber music stage these days,” he explains. “Of the three Brahms masterworks for piano quartet, the A Major (No 2) is the least played and yet I believe it contains his most impassioned and extraordinary soul bearing music. The slow movement is one of the highlights of his output. It also provides an incredible view of the German and Austrian music world at the time, with its heartfelt salute to Schubert, whose music was beginning to really see the light of day at long last – thanks to people like Brahms.”

Dean describes Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time as the most significant chamber work of the 20th century. “The circumstances around its composition are the stuff of legend and folklore,” he says. “Written in 1941 whilst he was a prisoner of war (Stalag VIIIa) for the four musicians in the camp, the piece looks back and forward all the while breaking new ground. The music is breathtakingly virtuosic, heartbreaking, confronting and ethereally uplifting. For 45 minutes, time really stands still.”

“And I was thrilled to be able to include the music of Margaret Sutherland in this programme,” Dean says, “as she was one of the greatest pioneers in Australian music. A great supporter of music education and composition, it has often been said that she would have left double the amount of music in her own catalogue if she hadn’t spent so much time promoting other composers and their music. She was one of the first composers to really seek out an Australian sound – a sound that reflected our landscape and not the rolling green hills of England.”

And following this auspicious start, what does the future hold for Ensemble Q? “On June 24 we are joined by a wonderful array of Australian musicians including Greta Bradman, in performances of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony arranged by Klaus Simon,” Dean says. “My own Wind Quintet Jasper and Charlie will be the tofu in the sandwich in this programme (spoken like a true Vegan).”

“In October we are joined by Alexander Sitkovetsky – one of the greatest violinists I have ever had the chance to grace a stage with – in a programme of the Schubert String Quintet and Golijov’s Prayers and Dreams of Isaac the Blind,” Dean says. “And in November, we perform an extraordinary programme of the Schubert Trout Quintet, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and a new work by Ukrainian born Australian composer Catherine Likhuta. Listen out for that name everyone. She has the most to say of any composer living in this country at present… and it is a real honour to play her new trio in this, our last concert for the year.”

Ensemble Q presents Timeless Quartets at the Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, South Bank, May 28