Shifting Treks by Sydney Hodkinson on navona

navona-records-logoShifting Treks, a recent navona release, catapults us into the sound world of a formidable champion of new music, spanning a career which has crisscrossed the United States and one which has been able to draw on the benefits of direct involvement with some of the most prolific, studied, and influential American composers of the last 50 years.

Sydney Hodkinson

Sydney Hodkinson

Hodkinson, as a conductor, favors ensembles willing to tackle the less-accepted and more challenging sectors of today’s disjunct musical landscape, as is evinced by his involvement in not only the highly regarded Musica Nova ensemble at the Eastman School of Music (which he helped nourish into its mature state), but also in other new music groups such as Voices of Change, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, and the Contemporary Directions Ensemble at the University of Michigan—his alma mater. It is this quest for the new, this insatiable thirst for innovative ensemble writing which drives Hodkinson to seek emerging repertoire with a laser-like focus. But where does this leave us with Hodkinson, the composer? It may be hard to pin-down a stylistics when your mentors vary wildly, as they do in this case — from Roger Sessions to Ross Lee Finney, himself a student of Alban Berg and Nadia Boulanger; from Milton Babbitt to Elliot Carter. If we attribute the linear frenzy of Ernest Bloch or Lukas Foss to these works, we must also juxtapose the orchestral bombast of someone like Stravinsky or Walter Piston; the restraint of Marius Constant or Ligeti, bifurcated at times by the heartfelt outpourings of Kurt Weill or Galina Ustvolskaya. A comparison like this merely serves to guide the listener towards a metrics of familiarity. Nevertheless this palette of styles doesn’t, and shouldn’t curtail one’s imaginative expectations when approaching something wholly contemporary and exciting as this. The breadth and scope of Hodkinson’s conducting activity is reassuring of an informed and dynamic language, which provides his compositional ideas with added impetus and permutational invention.

Most of the music included here is from the 1990s, a time in which the transition to synthesized film scores was almost complete. Incidentally, the Potpourri: 11 Very Short Pieces, which is from 2009 (making it the most recent of the works featured) lashes out as if it emanated from the pre-synthesized era of film scores, as these pieces are so buoyant, dazzling, and caricature-like that it’s easy to conjure visual counterparts to them. The percussion writing is especially notable, driving each piece into the next with gusto. The orchestration is variegated, achieving everything from hopscotch-y propulsiveness, sanguine insanity, whimsical populism à la Ellington-esque fragments of the blues, to haunting dread and hushed brooding. Yet, due to their disjointed assemblage, assessing these pieces as a collectivity becomes problematic. They speak, but in digressing mannerisms and conflicting directions.

Epitaphion is the most absorbing work on Shifting Treks: a dirge written in memory of a large contingent of close friends and family who mysteriously died all within the same year. A wide gamut of emotional terrain is unraveled, and at this point Hodkinson’s persuasively intelligible structures reveal his sensuous particularity for abstract structural logic. The timelessness and disembodied ether of sound conveys realms of the beyond. Cascading spectral atmospheres yield to bouts of terror, manic desperation, even moments of cadential resolution sounding as if they came right out of the Berlioz Requiem. Surprising episodes of childlike tenderness ascend into the twilight, with particular emphasis on the brass and string sections. Conductor Vladimir Lande, himself no stranger to new music, leads the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra with a magisterial autonomy. Having worked with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, and Valery Gergiev, Lande is able to extract the necessary sonics with a commanding stewardship, and the results are exquisite.

shifting-treksPiano Concerto No. 1: A Shifting Trek takes on a fragmented perceptibility, and is overwrought with explosive swells and crescendi, but fares well as a conclusion, containing well-balanced give-and-take exchanges between soloist and orchestra and a constantly evolving textural assemblage. These virtuosic fireworks deserve several repeat listens, as the figurations are so dense and overlappingly dizzying that it makes the rhythmic whirlwind a real treat to be immersed in. Hodkinson flexes his muscle in the orchestration here, as well as in the almost machine-like piano writing, which is carried off with great precision by Barry Synder, whom the work is dedicated to, and who played a role in the development of the piano writing itself. According to Hodkinson’s liner notes, the work is in a constant state of struggle within itself, both metaphorically and recombinatorially, and the tension of this dualism is played out across an extended form; four movements which contentiously evoke one another, giving the impression that this is not merely a concerto for piano but for the entire orchestra, as well. Conductor Petr Vronský leads the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra with esteemed dedication to the score’s details, and the recording’s dynamic range compliments the musical punctuation nicely, something which is to be expected from Navona Records, a subsidiary of the very fine Parma Recordings Company. Digital scores are included with the release, allowing us to peer into the intricacies on the page, but one shouldn’t expect anything beyond rather medium-resolution scans.

While the modernist sensibilities of Shifting Treks are its eminent domain, there are plenty of surprising moments of stylistic blending and aesthetic collocation to drive a pleasing experience of active listening. There is a distinctly east coast regionalism to Hodkinson’s formulations, with its unequivocal post-war establishment ethos. And yet, divergences and impulses at variance with the avant-garde fabricate themselves from just beyond the threshold of anticipation. Born in the same year that Edwin Hubble’s images revealed there to be just as many galaxies as stars in our own Milky Way, perhaps it is no accident that the sonic varieties included in these three works ascribe to a similar expansiveness, offering us a useful glimpse into Hodkinson’s compositional universe.

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