When did you first know Paul was writing a concerto for you?
Paul had been talking about the concept of writing me a concerto for a long time, but we’re both pretty big dreamers so I didn’t take it particularly seriously. We do our programming for Ensemble Q at least a year in advance, and he had the idea of writing the concerto for cello with wind quintet, rather than orchestra. I take quite a bit of convincing to allow him to put me in the spotlight, but he cleverly coined it in terms of it being a chamber work with what is, of course, my favourite wind quintet, so I agreed to go ahead with it. He started writing it in late January and as we lead fairly ridiculously busy lives, it was finished last week, so I’ve had to put on the accelerator as far as learning the work goes!
Ensemble Q Co-Artistic Directors Trish O’Brien and Paul Dean
Was the compositional process a collaborative one?
I tried very hard to stay out of the process as much as possible so that he didn’t end up too frustrated or lose his compositional voice in an attempt to make the piece something that I would like or that was playable. He wanted me to collaborate though, and he has often asked me for input in his other compositions, so it wasn’t an unusual request. We ended up deciding that the best way was for him to compose sections, and then for me to tell him whether the work was playable or not. Paul’s music, whilst extraordinary and wonderful, is notoriously difficult and he is used to being sworn at by anyone who is learning his works, and with a particularly hectic schedule for the first part of this year, it was important that I wasn’t going to end up also swearing at him (well, maybe one or two expletives have been uttered in the practise room… but not too many!).
It’s a fascinating and humbling process, being on the side of someone who is reaching into his mind and soul and writing a piece with me in mind. I have had other compositions written for me by other composers, but they were always given to me once they had been finished, and my input in terms of editing would be to offer bowing or fingering suggestions. I am incredibly humbled, and it was vitally important to me that he created something that was truly by Paul Dean, and not in any way ‘made to order’.
The instrumentation is unusual and I understand this is the first ever concerto for cello and wind quintet. What are the pleasures of playing in this particular combination?
I am really excited by the combination and see the concerto as a work that many cellists and wind quintets will want to play. Wind quintets tend to be full of interesting people and the instruments are certainly a very colourful combination that are often individually paired with cellos in concertos and other chamber works, so it makes a lot of sense to bring them all together. It’s fascinating seeing how wind players learn works, they approach rehearsals much more as soloists coming together than string players do, and they seem to have an unspoken understanding of their roles much like a football team passing a ball to each other in a fast paced game.
What are some of the challenges?
Definitely volume will be my challenge. Wind instruments are all capable of hitting the back wall of a concert hall far more quickly and clearly than a cello, and usually I would have the best part of a string section between me and my wind counterparts. Paul has thought about that though, and I am working with some of the best wind players in the industry so I’m sure they’ll be kind.
What can the audience expect to hear?
The Concerto for Cello and Wind Quintet is in three movements, the first entitled WWBD (What Would Brahms Do, and also named after two of Paul’s heroes, William Walton and his late father Barry Dean). This movement is lyrical, demanding and really establishes a very different sound world that I think draws influences from Richard Strauss but gives the cello a very distinctive strength. It defines the combination of cello and wind quintet in a very eloquent, intricate and listenable way. The second movement is titled Under the Canopy, which is possibly my favourite place to be, under a canopy of trees, looking up seeing all the beautiful textures and shapes of the branches and leaves that can only be viewed from below and with the backlighting of the sky. It is an incredibly beautiful and touching movement that I think the audience will really love. The last movement is entitled Homage to Les Six, who were the French composers Milhaud, Poulenc, Honegger, Auric, Durey and Tailleferre. It is a playful and fun movement with a cheeky dance-like quality despite its difficulty. The feeling in the rehearsal room instantly shines when playing this movement, so I know people will love what they hear and should enjoy the concerto very much.
Is it easier or harder working with a composer who is also your partner?
It’s wonderful working so closely with the composer, but in some ways it’s more difficult as I have to be extremely careful not to induce any lack of confidence or writers’ block with my honesty. I need to be encouraging but realistic, flattering but honest. I see my role as the defender against any bad reviews, so if anything needs reviewing before being presented to the public it’s better that I criticise it with love, than others criticise it with nothing but judgement. I love that he asks me to listen each step of the way, sometimes it’s just a few notes, other times several bars or an entire movement. I would do the same with him, and we’re incredibly lucky to be each other’s greatest supporter and muse that we can trust with every good and bad note, whether composed or played.
How do you think these works fit with the other works on the program, Glazunov’s Rêverie Orientale, Mendelssohn’s Trio No 1 in D Minor and Ravel’s Mother Goose suite?
We both adore programming, in fact I think we’ll be coming up with beautiful programs for concerts in the nursing home when we’re centenarians in wheelchairs. The Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor is one of the greatest piano trios ever written, but also one of the most difficult for the piano so not played as often as it should as it requires a true virtuoso pianist. I like to program in terms of a meal, with the perfect mingling of courses with combinations of flavours and colours that create interest, texture, familiarity and excitement. The Mendelssohn is the main course of the concert, deservedly so. The Glazunov is an exquisite aperitif for clarinet and string quartet, and will draw the audience into the concert in an emotional and thought provoking way. The Dean concerto takes people into more of a feeling of a degustation, and the Ravel will transport people back to feelings of the innocence of childhood and wisdom of age, so perhaps that’s the dessert.
What are you looking forward to most about this concert?
I always look forward to Ensemble Q concerts, they are the most exciting concerts I’ve ever been involved in. The feeling of being in a team is an over-riding one, with what we call a ‘gun on every chair’ and most importantly, a really special group of people who we love playing with. I am excited to be giving our mentees Bryn Keane (double bass), Nathan Greentree (viola) and David Shaw (flute) an incredible experience that I know will make a huge difference to their careers. And I’m really hoping to do the cello concerto justice and make all the young cellists and wind players in the audience want to play it tomorrow.
Ensemble Q will perform the world premiere of Paul Dean’s Concerto for Cello and Wind Quintet at the Conservatorium Theatre, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, South Bank, on April 28