Sean Hickey

5 questions to Sean Hickey (composer)

On May 28, 2013, Delos released Sean Hickey’s first album on the “Great American Label,” Concertos, featuring conductor Vladimir Lande, cellist Dmitry Kouzov and clarinetist  Alexander Fiterstein. We asked Hickey 5 questions…

What does it take, in 2013, to record two concertos?

Plainly, it takes money and some flexibility. Unless one has a lot of the former, recording a large orchestra is entirely prohibitive in this country without substantial private or corporate patronage. I am fortunate to have a great relationship with conductor Vladimir Lande, who splits his time between the States and Russia, and who in many ways made this Delos recording possible through his directorship of two fine St. Petersburg orchestras. My Cello Concerto had its Russian premiere at the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, a neo-Baroque edifice on the banks of the Fontanka River with Dmitry Kouzov – who commissioned the work – in the solo role. The Clarinet Concerto saw its Russian premiere at the Large Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, one of the greatest halls in all of Europe, with Alexander Fiterstein as soloist.

I very much appreciate the working methods of the Russian orchestral musician. In my experiences in performances and recordings there, they have worked and rehearsed tirelessly and without complaint. (If they did, my limited Russian didn’t permit to me understand.) In both concertos, the distance between first rehearsal and final performance was amazingly large. These players simply dig in for hours until they get a part right, breaking every couple of hours for a brief cigarette and a flask of tea. Both works were recorded in the legendary Melodiya Studios on Vasilevsky Island in St. Petersburg, known from Soviet times as producing recordings from the likes of Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Mravinsky, and many others.

Sean Hickey

Sean Hickey

You chose to write for cello and clarinet, two instruments that have a strong affinity with voice (at least timbrally). Was your writing infused by vocal music?

In truth, not so much. That’s a good question. My motivation for writing each piece was, first, a desire to write an effective concerto for each instrument with orchestra. Second, it was to fulfill each commission, from Dmitry Kouzov and David Gould respectively. Each piece demonstrates the drier, neo-classic sound that characterized my work during this time. The first movement of the Clarinet Concerto is a good example of musical cubism, where shortish motives expand, contract, invert and occasionally pervert their initial shape. It requires a lot of concentration to perform work that literally tosses its material across the ensemble. Incidentally, the same piece can be played by clarinet and string quartet with obbligato bass, and with virtually no difference on the page between it and the string orchestra version on the disc. The chamber version has not yet been performed outside the US.

Was naming your pieces “concertos” a descriptive choice, or a desire to join a centuries-old tradition?

Sean Hickey -Concerto DelosI generally labor quite a lot over the titles of my works. Often, a title comes first and is the inspiration and the first point of departure for the music. But in the case of my three concertos – for cello, clarinet and mandolin – there are no descriptive titles of the works nor of the individual movements, and that is by design. In all cases, each a commission, 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.

The second movement of your cello concerto is an evocation of the “anguish of the innocent people in war’s crossfire” (I read that you wrote it with the Iraqi people in mind.) What prompted you to express these ideas in a concerto and not—for instance—an opera?

Well, for one, opera doesn’t really interest me nor do I think I could do it well. I also don’t think I could adequately express the futility of war on a stage carpeted with singers. Truthfully, I had no intention of creating any sort of pictorial description of the Iraq War in the piece, but since it was in the news daily and certainly affected me, the movement grew into what you hear now. The middle portion of the movement is for percussion battery and solo cello and has a quasi-militaristic sound before the cello dissolves into a falling chord on its bottom two strings, a keening lament perhaps for the dead and the innocent. A song-like English horn joins the solo cello over pizzicato strings. One moment of satisfaction came when the Russian orchestra, after rehearsing the piece for days, picked up on the buried quotation from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony – it a notable wartime work of course – in the final pages of the piece. It’s easy to forget in the glittering and watery metropolis, which rivals any European city for beauty and culture, that St. Petersburg is a city full of ghosts.

After successfully completing this project, where can we expect you musically?

I’ve just completed my next recording actually, which features several chamber works and much of my piano music, all performed by the incredible pianist, Philip Edward Fisher and recorded in Princeton. I hope to have it released by year’s end so stay tuned.

I enjoyed a very successful concert this weekend in New York, where two works – Cursive for solo piano and Longitude for viola and piano – were successfully performed in the final concert this season of the Brooklyn New Music Collective. Next month I have performances at a music festival in Minas Gerais, Brazil, where a talented flutist, James Strauss, will perform all of my flute music. I have further performances in New York at the Cornelia Street Café and Klavierhaus, and another in Vilnius. Last month, pianist Klara Min gave the UK premiere of Cursive at London’s Wigmore Hall, an unforgettable experience that I blogged about. I’m hoping that the successful sales of the Delos recording will lead to more performances.

Lastly, I’m just finishing a symphony in three movements, “Olympus Mons”, named after the tallest mountain in our solar system. It is a radical departure from all of the music I’ve ever composed. I’m in the process of arranging its premiere hopefully next year. I’m also doing more speaking engagements on my work and entrepreneurship for musicians at colleges and universities.

Sean Hickey, Concertos. Vladimir Lande (cond.), Dmitry Kouzov (cello), Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet) St. Petersburg State Symphony (Delos, 2013) | Buy it on | |