It’s the early 80s in London, and during a party an up-and-coming Australian violist named Brett Dean is chatting with a few mates in the kitchen. The conversation turns to their admiration for fellow Aussie Piers Lane – a pianist whose international career is going from strength to strength. A figure then appears in the corner and says kindly, “hello, I believe you’re talking about me.”
Although they had gone to the same university in Queensland, Australia, this was the first time they had properly met. They’re now frequent collaborators and firm friends, and along the way have scaled dizzying heights in their individual careers.
Dean’s biography, for example, is an exhausting read. He was a full-time member of the Berlin Philharmonic for fourteen years, during which he started writing a bit of music. Cut to next scene, and said music is being consistently performed by the world’s finest orchestras, and he’s also an increasingly in-demand conductor. I manage to catch him for a chat before he rushes out the door for rehearsals: the world premiere of his new opera Hamlet at the Glyndebourne Festival is just a few weeks away. Dean isn’t taking any of it for granted though: “I regularly have to pinch myself to remind myself that this is actually happening.”
Meanwhile, in his musical career Lane is as versatile as he is prolific, with a discography exceeding 50 titles, regular performances in the world’s great venues (think sold-out recitals at Carnegie and Wigmore Halls), collaborations with everybody from violinist Tamsin Little to Patricia Routledge, as well as holding the post of Artistic Director of the Sydney International Piano Competition.
As part of his schedule in 2017, Lane joins the APO to perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.2, a piece that he’s been playing for more than 20 years. Due to the Concerto’s mammoth proportions, it’s occupying the space in the programme ordinarily reserved for a symphony. “Gosh,” says Lane at this news. “Well, I’ll do my best to be symphonic!”
Dean knows the piece similarly well, but this is the first time he’ll be holding a baton rather than a bow. “The Brahms 2 would come up almost every season at the Berlin Phil. The opportunity to get to grips with it on the podium is a very exciting one because it teaches you so much more about how the piece is put together, which as a composer I find very rewarding. And the chance to do it with Piers is just delightful.”
Dean will also conduct his own work in November’s concert, Fire Music, a piece that began as an emotional response to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia. He and his wife Heather had driven out to a friend’s property near the affected area about three months after the fires. “There were still palpable signs of devastation but at the same time there were the first signs of regeneration … these little green saplings coming out of what you could only imagine were dead tree trunks.”
Dean takes this paradox of destruction and renewal and transforms it into a new kind of musical logic, indicative of his ability to take inspiration from anywhere, or as Dean calls it, his “catholic tastes”. “I’m fascinated by a whole lot of things and keep my ears open. I got into composing not through classical circles at all. I did a whole lot of live improvs in clubs in the late 80s in these dives near the Berlin Wall, to a very unforgiving crowd of black-leather-jacket-clad post punks.
“I’m the sum of my parts, and I think one of the most important aspects of it is that I’ve come from a performance background. I’ve always strived to write music that were I playing it I would feel engaged with it. It comes back to those extremely formative years of playing in the Berlin Philharmonic which was such a physical act, and Fire Music is definitely an example of that.”
Right from the beginning of this compositional path, Lane has been one of his biggest fans. “I remember going to see the London Sinfonietta playing one of his early works, and I was incredibly proud then, and, he’s just shot up like a rocket ever since.”
Indeed, Dean attributes the genesis of his compositional life to his Lecturer in Harmony and Counterpoint at the Queensland Conservatorium, Alan Lane - father of one Piers. He credits Lane’s father for giving him, “a mere viola student”, the musical building blocks necessary for him to be able to compose, even though he didn’t start writing music until much later on.
It’s a connection of which Lane is clearly very proud. “Isn’t that wonderful. I was so thrilled that he said that to my father too before he died, and that meant an awful lot to Dad.”
The collective love for music between these two powerhouses is awe-inspiring. Over the course of our conversation, Lane talks excitedly about everything from his enthusiasm for recordings of pianist Alfred Cortot - “so many wrong notes, but he’s just got such an extraordinary musical imagination; he makes you want to play the piano” - to repertoire he hasn’t performed yet but is desperate to play - “zillions of things” - to the inspiration he finds from the upcoming generation of pianists and his love for teaching. “I guess I’m just greedy for the whole music world,” he surmises.
Dean’s fervour burns just as brightly, and his fearlessness has led him along paths that I can’t imagine that mere viola student from Brisbane would have dreamed.
“The thing is just to try stuff. You know the whole composition thing and more latterly with the whole conducting thing is basically just a sense of ‘I don’t want to die not knowing what this stuff is like’. I don't want to have not given something a go because it's too scary. Of course it's scary – there’s that threshold you have to cross and some nights are easier than others and all that, but I just want to learn stuff. I want to find out.”
- Tabatha McFadyen