Sean Hickey’s Concertos on Delos Recordings
This CD review by Don Clark was originally published in Issue 2 of our magazine and is offered here in its entirety.
A business executive moonlighting as a composer is not without precedent. Charles Ives made his fortune in insurance and William Schuman was president of Julliard and Lincoln Center, all while composing major new works. Composer Sean Hickey’s day job as sales and business development director at Naxos Records thrusts him into the high-pressure world of promoting literally hundreds of new CD releases every month. As with his counterparts above, he also manages to sneak in some time to compose.
Born in Detroit in 1970, Hickey’s earliest influence, as with many composers of his generation, was rock and jazz guitar. A degree in composition from Wayne State University in Michigan and studies with Justin Dello Joio and Gloria Cotes rounded out his musical education. His oeuvre consists of works for voice, chamber ensemble, chorus, and for orchestra.
This Delos disc features the premiere recordings of two of Hickey’s large scale works for orchestra and soloist, the Cello Concerto from 2008 and the Clarinet Concerto from 2006. Hickey freely partakes from the whole buffet of influences and styles available to the contemporary composer, although both works on this disc are steeped in the classical tradition. The composer confirmed this in an interview on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN in June 2013:
“I wanted to compose a work in traditional three-movement concerto form, where form and virtuosity synergize and complement one another, and where the soloist and orchestra combine, contrast and explore their relationship and respective roles. In that regard, my concertos are some of my most conservative works in terms of form.”
Conservative in form certainly, but works reflective of contemporary music and events.
The Cello Concerto was commissioned and premiered by cellist Dmitry Kouzov with the Chamber Orchestra of Southern Maryland under the direction of Vladimir Lande in May 2009. Lande and Kouznov took the concerto to St. Petersburg, Russia where it was then performed and recorded with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra.
Right from the first movement’s searingly agitated opening flourish from the orchestra and the dramatic, sweeping cello statement that follows, the listener is aware this is a work of substance. The opening motifs are tossed from orchestra to soloist until a chorale central section, where winds predominate, emerges as an anxious questioning of the overt heroicism of the opening. A short, simple motif is introduced by the cello forming, along with the opening cello statement, the thematic ground for the movement. The chamber-like scoring and frequent passages for the cello, percussion and winds alone echo, but never slavishly imitate Shostakovich. The movement ends ambiguously; the heroic, mood of the opening now a vague memory.
The questioning mode that ends the first movement carries on to the spare and funereal second movement, the composer’s personal reaction to the frustration over the continuing war in Iraq. Threadbare cello motifs, often keening and melismatic, contrast with the dry rattle of the percussion battery in the climactic middle section. A reflective chorale brings the movement to a somber close with echoes of the rattling percussion underpinning the cello and orchestra; the foreboding bass drum has the final word.
As one would expect from a classically inspired concerto, the final movement is brisk and upbeat. The orchestra and solo instruments get as much virtuosic play as the cello, tossing motifs and passages between them, until the more dramatic and contrasting cadenza reflects back to the more somber middle movement. Slower and astringent with double stops and sul ponticello passages, the cadenza leads to a reprise of the first tempo and a rousing and satisfying conclusion.
Lande, Kouzov and the Russian orchestra certainly give a committed and well-rehearsed performance; no mere run-through here. Kouzov is in complete command of the virtuoso passages—fleet, nimble and with fine intonation throughout the registers. His deep yet clear tone lets the cello sing in the more lyrically dramatic section, evoking a rich tenor voice at its peak. A thoughtful, well done recording of an accessible and most interesting work.
The Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra is an arrangement for clarinet and string orchestra of the original work with string quartet accompaniment. Clarinetist David Gould and the Metro Chamber Orchestra of New York City commissioned and first performed the work in 2006. The clarinet soloist for this performance, Alexander Fiterstein, gave the Russian premiere with Vladimir Lande conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in November 2011.
The Clarinet Concerto is a bit of a different animal than the Cello Concerto. Although substantive in length, at a little over 20 minutes, the work is lighter in texture, more angular and terse than the cello concerto. Yet as with the cello concerto, the movements are based on the development of short motifs and phrases, tossed from instrument to instrument and register to register.
The first movement, with its clear and crisp texture, brisk tempo and aforementioned angularity, has a Poulenc-like and sec feel. The clarinet plays practically without pause, mostly in the highest register. Hickey makes the most of his limited orchestral resources, the strings commenting on and introducing new motifs and, using pizzicato, frequently providing rhythmic impetus. More intensely lyrical sections contrast with the frisky opening music that also reappears. After a substantial cadenza, the movement plunges headlong into a decisive, abrupt ending.
The meditative second movement mines the clarinet’s wide and expressive middle register. The strings move in thick, slow blocks of sound while the solo weaves its plaintive melody above and sometimes below. As is now expected, the long winding melodies grow organically from short cells, finally dissolving into a Duke Ellington jazz guitar ending.
From that hint of jazz, the final movement is, after a short, dramatic opening, a dance filled romp. Hints of Celtic folk songs weave in and out of the texture culminating, after another brief cadenza, in a playful jig-like rush to the finish. Great fun! How many contemporary concerti can lay claim to that?
Filterstein is a marvelous clarinetist: his upper register tone brilliant and firm, with a solid middle and lower register that is never harsh or blatty. He is obviously in command of and enjoys performing this brilliant, tuneful concerto. The Russian strings relish their role, never overwhelming the solo but asserting themselves when called upon.
A most satisfying disc, consistently well performed and recorded, demonstrating that contemporary music can be accessible and lyrical as well as dramatic and colorful.
Sean Hickey, Concertos | Dmitry Kouzov (cello), Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet), Vladimir Lande (Conductor), St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra (Delos, DE-3448). Buy on Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk