Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 12, 2018

Brett Dean’s oratorio The Last Days of Socrates was a fitting swansong for the composer’s final concert as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Artist in Residence, bringing to a close a three-year association that began in 2016. Dean’s tenure with the SSO has coincided with an era of significant success for the composer, who saw his new opera Hamlet premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017 before its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Festival in March this year. Now with a string of awards under its belt, the opera is heading to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Written in 2013, the Last Days of Socrates predates Hamlet‘s success, but it already has its own impressive history – it was premiered by Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, before Simone Young conducted the Australian premiere with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (taking out the Art Music Award for Performance of the Year), while Gustavo Dudamel conducted the US premiere in Los Angeles. This performance is the first time the SSO has tackled the near hour-long oratorio.

The Last Days of Socrates sets words by Australian poet Graeme Ellis, drawn from Plato’s account of the Greek philosopher’s trial and death, in a work of dense, turbulent orchestral and choral textures, shot through with stunning colour. Conducting the work himself, Dean drew the orchestra’s sound – a shivering miasma – out of nothing on Friday night, the music unfurling until the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ cry of “Sōkrátēs!” thundered through the Concert Hall. The work’s vast orchestral forces (a huge percussion section augmenting an orchestra that includes accordion and electric guitar) meant this was a formidable sonic experience, further enhanced by groups of musicians playing behind the audience. While not unwieldy, the large forces did present balance challenges, and there were moments in Part I (the chorus calling on the goddess Athena) when the words didn’t quite make it over the surging orchestra.

The balance was more effective in Part II, Socrates’ trial, aided by Dean’s thoughtful orchestration. Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, who sung the role of Socrates in the work’s Australian premiere, gave us a dignified Socrates – he found clarity and dark gravitas in his vocal lines as he traced Socrates’ thoughts on life and death (railing with firm authority against “the worthless life unexamined”), beset by chorus groupings representing both his followers and his accusers, the latter charging impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Particularly powerful here was the final vote – the jury’s casting of coins into terracotta vessels a brutal, metallic crescendo.

Part III, opening with a questing cello solo (dedicated to the memory of Berlin Philharmonic cellist Jan Diesselhorst), is more lyrical, cascading chorus lines washing over the audience. Andrew Goodwin’s penetrating tenor brought us the executioner, reluctantly delivering the hemlock for Socrates to drink, his final words disappearing, grief-stricken, into his low register. In this section, tendrils of music creep ever upwards, the hemlock coursing through Socrates’ veins as he sings his last, in the final, magical bars. Though the music is complex, it’s by no means inaccessible – you don’t need to understand it to get swept up in its powerful drama and surging, visceral beauty – and Dean’s painterly writing is wonderfully evocative. The 50 or so minutes of the oratorio flew by.

At the other end of the evening, Dean opened the concert with Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusina Overture. The music, telling the French mermaid folk tale of Melusine, was an apt inclusion not so much for its subject matter (it’s not as easy a thematic link as Haydn’s Philosopher) as its vivid orchestral writing, Mendelssohn’s burbling, aquatic winds foreshadowing Dean’s own illustrative score.

Following the Mendelssohn, Dean gave a distinctive account of Haydn’s Symphony No 22, The Philosopher. He took the ceremonial Adagio first movement at a decent clip, the alternating colours of horns and cor anglais more lively debate than ponderous rumination, though there was a moment or two when the earnestness of the exchange threatened to destabilise the tempo. Dean’s Presto was muscular, rather than brilliant, almost raw in its vigour, while there was a weightiness to the Minuet and Trio, before the conductor launched into the thrumming energy of the finale.

Giving Sydney its first look at a significant major work and putting a unique, personal spin on some classics, Dean delivered a deeply engaging concert, full of surprise and drama, to cap off what has been an incredibly rewarding tenure as Artist in Residence.

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