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World premiere a thrill for Perth

REVIEW: Musica Viva, Doric String Quartet ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, June 9 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

The launch of the world-renowned Doric String Quartet’s national Musica Viva tour was an auspicious occasion for Perth. The performance featured the world premiere of Australian composer Brett Dean’s third string quartet. Programmed between European composers Haydn and Schubert, whose traditional approach to the quartet form is now so well-known and deservedly loved, Dean’s modernistic approach was a complete contrast – but by no means less enjoyable or inventive. Dean is a man of his times of course, as were Haydn and Schubert, and his approach to composition is based on the tempo and issues that confront us in the 21st century.

His String quartet No. 3, subtitled Hidden Agendas, is inspired by, as Dean notes in the program, “the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities.” Introducing the world premiere from the stage, Dean amplified that comment by referring to a certain US president. The work is also influenced by the world of modern media, the bombardment of messages by the digital devices we all possess and, to quote the program notes again “other challenges to the democratic process.”

Quite a formidable canvas of issues on which to draw, but Dean is bold in his approach to the string quartet format with five movements that display not only his adventurous compositional skills but the brilliant talents of the Doric String Quartet.

The work begins with the sounds of the digital age expressed musically – noises both subtle and loud of the messaging in this century. There is dissonance, aggression in the notes wrought from the violins, viola and cello that convey a sense of unease. This is a work that aims to unsettle, provoke and confront.

Subsequent movements keep up the tension and confrontation, with little time for relaxation or release. Hidden Agendas is a thoughtful, inventive and complex work that deserves our attention and succeeds remarkably well in getting and holding that attention. The Doric String Quartet, who are familiar with Dean’s previous two quartets, must have thrilled the composer with their interpretation.

Now regarded as one of the leading quartets of the younger generation, the UK-based ensemble moves easily between Dean’s 21st century concerns and the old world of European music with its charm, tradition and familiar comforts. Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat major Op 33 is a case in point. Subtitled The Joke because of its ending (we don’t know quite how it will end as the musicians tease out the final bars), the work draws on all kinds of cheeky influences – from comic opera and folk music to the tarantella – to make its bouncy, jaunty impression. The Doric Quartet’s interpretation is, as to be expected, flawless and full of finesse in conveying the sense of joy and humour inherent in Haydn’s Opus 33.

Their execution of Schubert’s no 15 quartet in G major is similarly flawless to the point of majestic. Rather long at 45 minutes for a string quartet, Schubert demands a lot from the players and the Quartet’s energy and skill never falters, which makes the experience of listening to this first-class ensemble entirely pleasurable.

The Musica Viva Doric String Quartet tour continues to Melbourne, Adelaide, Newcastle, Sydney and finishes in Brisbane on June 26. Tickets online.

Pictured top: Hélène Clément, Alex Redington, Ying Xue, John Myerscough from the Doric String Quartet.

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