9 October 2018

An Interview with Brett Dean

Sydney Symphony Orchestra Artist in Residence Brett Dean will present the Sydney premiere of The Last Days of Socrates at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall this week. We chat to the composer and conductor about what to expect in his piece.

Composed and conducted by Dean, The Last Days of Socrates is a musical retelling of Plato’s narration of the final days of the philosopher. The composition is based on three of the four dialogues in Plato’s account around the events of 399BC.

Speaking about re-working the tale for an orchestral setting, the former violist was able to hear ways for the story to be told through a different medium.

Brett Dean

“I saw strong musical metaphors, not only in the sound-world that presented itself, but also the almost operatic potential of the solo part: the larger crowd challenging this wonderfully calm, insightful Socratic figure,” said Dean.

This musical retelling, also considered as an oratorio, will be accompanied by an unusual musical set-up. Busking-type instruments, including the electric guitar and accordion, bring a taste of the street to the work. 

“This is a piece that deals with the uprising of the people against Socrates by way of a semi-public trial…. so this sense of conjuring a ‘street-mob’ feel, not only in the large choral forces that I've written for but also from within the orchestra, seemed vitally important,” said Dean.

The bass-baritone and chorus represent the voices of Socrates, his followers and the citizen jurors. The narrative is propelled by the incorporation of original percussion instruments, weaving the plot through the sounds of the orchestra.

“The voting system for [Socrates’] trial involved the throwing of metal coins, embossed with ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, into a set of large terracotta pots. With such strong sonic associations to play with, metal sounds and tuned clay pots become a resonant feature.”

Drawing on his experience as a violist, Dean’s time in the strings section informed his approach to reworking the story for an orchestra.

Brett Dean

“The big compositional advantage I find in being a string player when writing for symphony orchestra is that I already have an insider's knowledge on how at least half the orchestra works, plays and thinks… I'm often told by orchestral players that my music is technically difficult and demanding but ultimately playable.”

Join us this Thursday and Friday at the Sydney Opera House to celebrate this original composition by leading Australian voice.