The Grawemeyer Awards announced yesterday "The Lost Art of Letter Writing", a four movement violin concerto by Australian composer Brett Dean, won the 2009 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.
“It’s a wonderful solo vehicle that also contains terrific writing for orchestra,” said Marc Satterwhite, a UofL music professor who directs the award. “The piece combines the brilliant surface one might expect from a Romantic era violin concerto with enormous emotional range and depth.”
Each movement in the half-hour concerto begins with an excerpt from a 19th-century letter, with a violin evoking the mood of each letter as it plays the alternate roles of writer and recipient. Authors of the letters include composers Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf, artist Vincent Van Gogh and Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.
You can listen to a sample of it here, by Frank Peter Zimmermann and the Münchner Philharmoniker. Dean conducted and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam accompanied when the piece premiered in 2007 in Cologne.
Previously, I reviewed the Scottish Premiered of Dean's Pastoral Symphony and didn't give it very high marks. I have not heard other works from Mr Dean, so don't feel qualified to comment on his style. There is no doubt the music is challenging for the performers. Both his award winning violin concerto and his symphony require virtuoso performances by the orchestra, and probably fairly demanding on the conductors as well.
As with the Pastoral Symphony, there is liberal use of sliding (glissandi) between notes for the strings. The solo violin does a fair amount of double stopped glissandi in the brief segment available on the internet. While I find the technique interesting, it seems bit overdone for me, returning to the styles of Iannis Xenakis. The entire excerpt had that sort of influence. Since Brett Dean is an accomplished viola player, performing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 15 years, his string writing must certainly be exceptional, extremely technical and yet organic for the instrument. I could not hear the letter it was referring to, nor the entire work, it's really hard to judge the piece as a whole. For what it's worth, the judges obviously felt the piece has merit and so congratulations to Brett Dean for this award.