This emotionally powerful Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra program confronts the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20

Paul Dean’s resonant first symphony is a “passionate plea from our planet to humans to act now”.

By Stephanie Eslake

Australia, you’ve done well over the past few years. You’ve lived through a pandemic. You’ve continued to support live music, even when the odds were so greatly stacked against you.

You’ve faced and overcome so many challenges that you might not think to look back on the event that came before – the Black Summer of 2019-20 when you experienced a bushfire season that ripped through more than 10 million hectares of our wilderness and communities.

Perhaps like composer Paul Dean, you made it through this environmental crisis with the help of music. After all, what better medium can unite us and reflect our collective experiences?

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra will open its powerful concert Fire & Water with the second movement of Paul’s Symphony No. 1 Black Summer. The composer calls his work “a passionate plea from our planet to humans to act now”.

Paul is based in Brisbane and while he didn’t lose his own property that summer, like most Australians he was deeply affected.

“Our dearest friend and best man at our wedding was severely burnt trying to rescue his dog, and spent an agonising month in hospital and suffers pain to this day,” Paul shares. He adds that many of his other friends were “extremely lucky” to avoid catastrophic outcomes.

Paul spent the long months of Black Summer constantly checking the radio and TV for updates, and now remembers the entire experience as “a massive nightmare”.

As confronting as it may feel, it's important not to downplay the value of Paul’s experience – or the music that emerged from it. The second movement of his symphony will be performed in nipaluna/Hobart in 2023, a year that’s expected to be hot and dry. It serves as a timely reminder of what we’ve lost, but also of the way our memories may spark positive action in the future.

To Paul, a marker of the performance’s success is bringing “thoughts to mind about how as individuals we might be able to create change, even in a small way”.

“I hope that the symphony brings the thought of bushfires back to people’s imagination and thoughts – and jolts the complacency that is so easy to fall into since we haven’t really had fires anywhere near that magnitude since 2020.”

Composing the feeling of Black Summer

Not only is Paul an Australian composer; he’s also a clarinettist with his foot in the doors of chamber music (as co-artistic director of Ensemble Q and founder of Southern Cross Soloists), orchestras (performing as soloist and principal player), festivals (as artistic director of Four Winds Festival), and education (as former artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music).

The second movement of his Black Summer symphony features 10 minutes of music that Paul says he’s proud of. His writing involved “a particularly special composition process” that made use of his own instrumental section, as well as brass and strings, in a symbolic way.

When thinking about the music he would create and message he wanted to share, Paul conjured the fantastical idea of a climate conference with just three in attendance: land, air, and sea.

“The air is represented by the wind section, the land by the brass, and the sea by the strings,” Paul explains.

“The three have their say on the diabolic situation we find ourselves in, and then combine as a single entity to produce a passionate statement to humankind.”

The statement is delivered at a climactic moment of his music, and you will be left in its wake with the tune of the piccolo: “The song of the last bird alive, singing its last song.”

An emotional journey for Tasmanian audiences

This piece will open the TSO program under the baton of Alexander Briger. Alexander conducted the symphony in 2021 when it was commissioned and first performed by the Australian World Orchestra.

“I know Alex Briger brought this movement to life during its premiere, and I am very excited about hearing him conducting it again,” Paul shares.

Paul – who will also perform as a solo clarinettist at Fire & Water – returns to the TSO as a regular, having played with the island’s musicians for the past three decades (“I adore being in Hobart,” he adds).

The TSO program will continue with another Australian work, Time is a River by Graeme Koehne. You can hear it recorded by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra before you head along to the live performance.

Paul describes the piece as “16 minutes of utter joy and peace…the perfect vehicle for quiet reflection for the audience after my symphony’s slow movement”.

“Music is about the thoughts, imagination, and reflection that a listener brings to the experience – and I really believe they will love the reflective calmness of Graeme's beautiful piece.”

Graeme composed Time is a River in 2010, and the work – which also highlights the clarinet – pays respects to his mother who passed away.

Paul opens up about his personal connection to the piece: “Graeme's piece also always reminds me of my mum who I lost a few years ago. Written in dedication to his mother after her passing, the incredible warmth that pervades his piece is mesmerising.”

Robert Schumann’s 1850 Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Rhenish will close the TSO concert with the spirit of “water” behind the program’s name. It’s a major-feel work that will ultimately send you away with feelings of peace and optimism as it transports you to another beautiful environment, the Rhine in Europe.

Book now to experience the powerful music of Fire & Water performed by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra this August 3 in the Federation Concert Hall.