Brett Dean on his journey from Berlin Phil violist to full-time composer

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The Australian violist and composer on taking career risks and the unique insights that came from playing the viola in an world-class orchestra

I learnt the violin initially, but was taught by a violist in Brisbane called Elizabeth Morgan. She was my teacher for close to ten years and noticed at some stage that my character might be a good fit for the viola. She was absolutely on the money.

I felt more at home in the middle of a texture than on top of it. Later, while playing in the Berlin Philharmonic I had the feeling of being ‘in the engine room’, observing everything going on around me. Although I’d enjoyed pursuing my viola studies from a solo perspective, I felt most complete playing chamber music and then in the orchestra in Berlin – an experience that taught me so much about composing.

Germans like to use the English phrase ‘learning by doing’, and that’s exactly what was happening; I never studied composition, but in the midst of the orchestra I could hear what worked and why. Perhaps being a violist…

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