Composers have paid astonishingly little attention to Socrates over the ages. In the early 20th century, Erik Satie wrote an exquisite, half-lit half-hour symphonic drama, "Socrate." At the other extreme in the Baroque era, Telemann came up with "Der Geduldige Socrates" ("The Patient Socrates,"), a rollickingly fanciful four-hour comic (yes, comic!) opera.
But there has been no time when the 5th century Greek thinker about whom we know little but whose moral station and thoughts about the examined life led to the birth of philosophy as we know it, hasn't meant something significant for society. Certainly Brett Dean's new oratorio, "The Last Days of Socrates," a Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commission that will have its first U.S. performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, is reaching our country in the nick of time.
Just think, if members of Congress, who believe they know it all, were to accept the words of this wisest of all philosophers who said, "I know one thing: that I know nothing."
The oratorio was given its premiere in spring by the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting (Dean once having been a violist in the orchestra). And it is being called the finest work by the Australian composer, who was given the 2009 Grawemeyer Award in 2009 for his violin concerto "The Lost Art of Letter Writing."
A big piece for solo bass-baritone, chorus, the oratorio was originally supposed to be a half hour but turned out to be nearly twice that length, which caused the L.A. Phil to move the premiere originally slated for Thursday’s program to Saturday to allow more rehearsal time. But Dean has defended the length, saying that he found the subject matter simply too powerful and too relevant to hold back. While the poet Graeme William Ellis – a fellow Australian – doesn’t update Plato in his libretto, he does seek out Socratic equivalences in the modern world and quotes Chinese artist
Gustavo Dudamel conducts a massive orchestra (including much percussion, accordion and electric guitar) and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Peter Coleman-Wright is the Socrates.