Byline: Stephanie Eslake
Paul Dean says his concerto is “fierce, beautiful, and fun – all at the same time”. Sounds a bit like an opera, doesn’t it?
The Ensemble Q clarinettist composed his Concerto for Cello and Wind Quintet in 2018, having just wrapped up his opera Dry River Run – about two hours’ worth of musical drama.
“It taught me a lot about writing music,” Paul says of his work for stage. “And I think my cello concerto was the success story of the opera: I treat the cello as the central character in its own little opera.”
Paul’s cello concerto is about love. In this way, it’s unlike most operas: it ends with a happily-ever-after. The solo was written for his wife Trish Dean, Ensemble Q’s virtuosic cellist who co-founded the group in 2017.
Composing for Trish was an act of joy, Paul reflects. At the time, they were soon to be married, so the concerto became “a documentary of our first few months living together in Brisbane”.
But while it may indulge Paul’s nostalgia for their early romance, that’s not the end of the story. Far from being overly sentimental, the work is complex. Frenzied, even.
“I remember having an enormous amount of fun writing it – and Trish had an enormous amount of pain learning it,” Paul grins.
The concerto is technically difficult. It’s fast. There are very few patterns – so players can’t easily rely on muscle memory to glide through a line. Trish is sent flying from the bottom of the cello to the top with just a quarter of a beat to spare – and she has “to nail it, and to play it extremely loud”.
“It’s very beautiful to play,” Trish says. “There are just a few bits where I will always look at Paul and ask, why?!”
The answer is simple: in-jokes.
“I always try to be playful in the idea of doing something different,” Paul says. Sometimes, he’ll include notes for his musicians just to give them a laugh. Perhaps it’s why he also chose to write for such a rare and imaginative combination of instrumental voices.
Joining Trish and Paul are flautist Virginia Taylor, horn player Peter Luff, bassoonist David Mitchell, and oboist Huw Jones. Huw reckons the concerto is one of Paul’s best works – “a fabulous combination of sounds, textures, and instruments”.
“It’s a really virtuosic piece, which shows off Trish’s amazing abilities as a cello soloist. There’s nowhere for her to hide,” Huw says.
It’s easy to be daring among friends, which is how these players describe the members of their group. Together they joke around, rather than take themselves too seriously. They’re honest with each other. After all, there’s no conductor, so they all lead the way. Huw goes so far as to call this rehearsal process “relaxing”.
“There’s a healthy level of mutual respect between musicians,” Huw says. From his side of the rehearsal room, he particularly looks up to Paul and Peter – both of whom tutored him through the Australian Youth Orchestra years ago.
Adding to that, Paul is head of winds at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, where Peter is an associate professor, Virginia is head of flute, David lectures bassoon, Huw is a faculty member, and Trish has taught cello.
Now, they share the stage as equals – as family – for this adventurous set of works.
While the cello concerto marks the grand finale of their program, it was also the starting point with Musica Viva. Artistic Director Paul Kildea had listened to Ensemble Q’s first performance of the work on YouTube, and knew it was a piece to be shared with the rest of Australia.
Arranging the concert from there was like a jigsaw puzzle: Trish sat down with her husband (and a few glasses of wine), and dreamed about performing the best wind quintets in the repertoire. They wanted to make the most of the chance to revisit the concerto, pairing it with works that would elevate each concert to the status of an “occasion”.
They landed on Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles (“hilarious and brilliant”, comments Paul Dean), and Barber’s Summer Music (“the greatest example of homesickness in a piece of music other than the New World symphony”). Britten, Debussy, and Beethoven are in good company as they join this rousing collection.
“Paul and I are naturally energetic, passionate, and crazy people – so what we do on stage is always engaging. And we tend to attract those kinds of people as well,” Trish says.
“In this Musica Viva group, what we’re really going to project is not just the excitement of performing – but this sense of family, and this next level of energy we have created.”
A major source of Ensemble Q’s energy is the Musica Viva performance itself. Having scraped through the pandemic of 2020, only to emerge into an unpredictable 2021, the players aren’t able to conceal the fact that they’re overjoyed to be performing.
“Everybody has bonded and come to a whole new appreciation of what it is to play chamber music with each other,” Trish says.
“We nearly folded Ensemble Q. There were moments we didn’t think we had a future. But suddenly, there was this little Musica Viva star sitting on the calendar for 2021. It’s given everybody an awful lot of hope, so I think the electricity surrounding that is going to be very clear to the audience.”
Ensemble Q's livestreamed performance will take place on Monday, 23 August at 7PM AEST. Book your tickets now.