Thursday's Fire Music concert may well be the most spectacular outing in Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's current season.

The title comes from a 2012 work by conductor Australian Brett Dean and the piece itself is a half-hour musical blaze that had one London critic praising its energy, along with its moments of mystery and menace.

Back in 2009, while the bushfires that inspired his piece were raging, Dean was secure in Melbourne with temperatures hitting the mid-40s. However, in communities throughout the state of Victoria, the fires claimed the lives of 173 people and the date, Saturday February 7, became known as Black Saturday.

"It was heart-wrenching to walk through the bush and see the utter devastation," he recalls. "There were still wrecked cars on roadsides and yet green shoots of new growth were starting to come through. That alone was incredibly profound; after those almost unfathomable temperatures, life was springing forth again."


That regeneration inspired Fire Music which was commissioned by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Australian Ballet, which heightened Dean's awareness of the work's theatrical potential.

"When I was writing, I was also thinking of it as a piece of theatre, a piece to be moved to," he says.

In the concert hall, there's nothing quite like the drama of a large orchestra especially when it includes an electric bass guitar, MIDI keyboard and such percussive exotica as wine bottles, whip and whirley tubes.

But that's not all. Dean has also set up three satellite groups of instrumentalists, including an amplified string quartet, around the hall. Yet Fire Music, occupying the same running time as a symphony or concerto, makes specific formal demands on its composer.

"Despite the obvious drama that comes from the horrors of that Black Saturday in the bush, the piece must have its own internal logic," he says. "In fact, it falls into very clear sections and it's important that these relate to each other in the unfolding of the music."

Dean enjoys talking about the nitty-gritty of being a conductor and, during his 16 years playing viola in the Berlin Philharmonic, he worked with veritable legends.

"All of a sudden you're in charge," he says. "You have to make these ideas on the page palpable and readable in the moment for 80 to 90 musicians. You have to come to a decision about the composer's process of working and how this takes us to the final playing."

In the second half of Thursday's concert, Dean will share the stage with fellow-Australian Piers Lane in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, just a week after they performed Rachmaninoff's Third in Sydney.

"Brahms was part of my daily bread in Berlin, not only in the orchestra but as a soloist in chamber groups" he says. "There's a certain weight to this music that can sometimes be difficult for a conductor to negotiate. It's knowing when to step in and guide, and when to step aside.

"In a concerto, a lot of the musical energy is coming from the soloist. Yet the pianist will answer some of the questions that, otherwise, I'd have to answer myself if it were a Brahms symphony. In the end, it's the perfect balance of challenges and pay-offs."

What: Fire Music, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with conductor Brett Dean
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday