Praise for Sean Hickey – Concertos
Although I have always known that he is also active as a composer, I’ve principally known Sean Hickey as the national sales and business development manager for Naxos of America. His “day job” (which actually seems more like a 24/7 job) has him listening to and promoting literally hundreds of new recordings every month that are either released by or distributed through Naxos, as well as traveling all over the world to broker various deals. Amidst this seemingly all-consuming work, I’ve always found it remarkable that he has had time to create any music of his own at all. But his website lists 25 compositions created during the last ten years—clearly he’s a role model to all of us who wear multiple hats. But what is perhaps even more extraordinary is that despite his seemingly never-ending immersion into so many other people’s music, he has found his own distinctive compositional voice in the fusing of a wide range of musical elements.
In a 2010 interview published by the web magazine Notes on the Road, Hickey explained how he was able to find that voice. It’s actually great advice for other composers:
“Don’t deny ANY influence you hear, see, or feel. Everything is important in the creative sense: your relationships, your loves, heartbreaks, geography, family—and all the music you hear, popular or otherwise. I would advise composers to absorb it all—and try to make something of it. The more open a composer is, the faster they can find their unique voice and the more they can grow.”
In that same interview, he also described the formative influences of recordings by Frank Zappa, as well as hearing a live performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments when he was 16 years old. And certainly, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the Zappa and the Stravinsky filtered through a post-modern sensibility on the first CD devoted exclusively to Hickey’s music, a disc of mostly short chamber works (much of it for winds) on—fittingly enough—Naxos American Classics. But all these elements fuse with an even greater stylistic sweep on a new Delos CD devoted to two of Hickey’s concertos, one for cello and one for clarinet. On the surface they seem extremely formal, almost old fashioned. Both are cast in the traditional three-movement concerto form that has been the norm since the 18th century. But behind this scaffolding is a very personal artistic response to the huge breadth of music that was created in the 20th century when every tradition was challenged. In its reconciliation of these seeming polarities, it is very much music of our own time.
The Cello Concerto (2008) was commissioned by the Russian cellist Dmitry Kouzov, who premiered the work under the baton of the St. Petersburg-based conductor Vladimir Lande (who both appear on the present recording). From its almost militaristic brass opening through its frequently anguished solo lines, the music seems to follow in the footsteps (perhaps appropriately) of the extraordinary Russian cello concertos of the Soviet era—e.g. works by Shostakovich and Kabalevsky. But Hickey’s completely un-Slavic orchestration—where a constant array of different combinations of instruments keep suddenly rising to the surface—reveal this to be music written long after Perestroika. It certainly is music that is inspired by 21st-century events—though he does not intend it in any way to be listened to as programmatic music. Hickey confesses in his program notes that the cello’s mournful sounding melodic passages in the second movement were his personal response to the war raging in Iraq as he was composing the work. In the third movement, Hickey’s modular scoring techniques become even more prominent, almost turning it into a bizarre cross between a cello concerto and a concerto for orchestra.
While there are no such orchestrational oddities in Hickey’s earlier Clarinet Concerto (2006), originally composed for clarinetist David Gould but performed on the recording by Alexander Fiterstein, it is a formidable work chock full of instantly appealing melodies—including fragments of several traditional Scottish airs—that is a significant contribution to the concerto literature for this most malleable of reed instruments. Given the fact that the clarinet is equally comfortable in classical and jazz contexts and also in many different forms of folk music, there is a long tradition of clarinet concertos showcasing the instrument’s polyglot possibilities—including the famous concertos by Copland and Stravinsky. Hickey is clearly aware of these works. However, the other extraordinary attribute of the clarinet is how different it sounds in its various ranges—from its sultry lower register to its angelic upper limits. It somehow makes beautiful music even more beautiful, something that has been exploited to full effect in chamber and orchestra works featuring the clarinet by composers ranging from Mozart, Brahms, or Reger to Nielsen, Feldman, or contemporary Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist. This is certainly the case with the ravishing clarinet melodies that pervade the slow middle movement of Hickey’s concerto. It is something that makes me think in my wildest dreams—or maybe they’re not so wild—that this piece could actually become standard repertoire one day.
A talented instrumentalist himself, Hickey writes music with performer as well as listener appeal. These concertos are no exception, and couldn't possibly have better advocates than the musicians on this enterprising Delos disc of discovery.
- Classical Lost and Found
This is music that has everything going for it--melodic, heroic solo parts, symphonic breadth, dynamic form and a sort of post-romantic dash. Both were written in the last decade but show the influence of, and absorption in the symphonic concerto tradition from the viewpoint of the present. The clarinet concerto has a bit more chromaticism and an expanded melodic-harmonic outlook but both show ample evidence of craft and inspiration.
Sean Hickey has talent and an original take on the music. The performances are first-rate. The Clarinet Concerto was my favorite of the two but there are I am sure many listens to come for me in the years to follow, so check in with me then! Mr. Hickey is for real and the music offers much to the symphonic enthusiast. Give this one your ears!
- Gapplegate Reviews
Sean Hickey is not a “new voice” for me, personally, as he is – among other things – the national development manager for Naxos. He is, first and foremost, a brilliant young composer whose style is in the heritage of fairly traditional structures and harmonic vocabulary; learned in part from his teachers, including Leslie Bassett and Justin Dello Joio. Mr. Hickey is a much-awarded composer, a talented guitarist and quite the Renaissance man who also writes a variety of travel journals and articles.
These two concerti give us a wonderful glimpse into Hickey’s compositional style but are also two very viable additions to the 21st Century repertoire for these two instruments.
- Audiophile Audition
American composer Sean Hickey comes out swinging with this new recording, which features two impressive compositions, one written for cello and the other for the clarinet. Conceived in a neo-classical style, which embraces the expansive melodic breadth and layered harmonic language found in traditional European symphonic music, both pieces of music exude a mood that lovers of Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler or Sibelius will enjoy. To wit, it is the latter composer that Hickey had in mind when he first began work on Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. The composer’s attempt to “make fast music that sounds slow” is realized in the second movement of the piece by utilizing a low eight-note pattern that sets the stage for a poignant melody, occasionally punctuated by percussive bursts. The restraint of this movement is answered by the charged attitude of the composition’s concluding section, which showcases the talents of cellist Dmitry Kouzov as well as Hickey’s ability to consolidate the “songful, heroic nature of the greatest cello concerto literature” into a potent expression of solo and collective instrumental virtuosity. Meanwhile, the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra is a thoughtful exposition that puts the performance of Alexander Fiterstein front and centre. The clarinetist doesn’t disappoint, and his instrumental finesse imbues the composition with a humanity almost certain to endear listeners to Hickey’s fine work. Top notch.
- The Scene
Praise for Left at the Fork in the Road – Sean Hickey
Every piece is nearly flawless, exciting, and played with tremendous passion.
…we have music that unfolds comfortably, but there’s enough to arouse curiosity without scaring anyone off. It will not alienate stodgy blue-hair types, but it will still satisfy those who crave creative new music.
- American Record Guide
Sean Hickey – A composer who maximizes the miniature in his savvy travelogues.
…these compositions are substantive and savvy. The aesthetic that emerges here is that of excitable conversation between the instruments – a discourse that never collapses into idle palaver. Fool’s Errand packs a wealth of material into a three-minute masterpiece.
In Sagesse (2003), a chamber orchestra setting of the 16th poem from French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine’s eponymously-named collection (1881), composer Sean Hickey presents an undauntedly lyrical and thoughtful work. Composed at the request of, and elegantly premièred on November 6, 2003 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, by the One World Symphony under the sensitive direction of David Sung Jin Hong, Hickey "wished to find a text that contained within it a strong element of music, not necessarily in the meaning of the words, but rather an inner music found in great poetry that all but begs to be set, in this case for voices and instruments." Structured in two distinct parts, Sagesse begins with a delicate, somewhat contemplative, instrumental prologue in a 6/8 meter. Faster and more elaborate in its textures, the second part introduces two exquisitely-complementary voices (the mood-setting fragility of soprano Jennifer Greene, followed by the poignant nostalgic quality of tenor Sean Fallen), whose parts are often interspersed with very effective and well-proportioned instrumental interludes. Although Mr. Hickey at times gives evidence of a connoisseur’s ear for Stravinskian wind sonorities and rhythms (particularly in the second part), his part writing for voices and his overall conception in this most intelligent and sagacious setting of Verlaine’s poem whets the appetite for what audiences can expect from this youthful composer of heart and mind.
- New Music Connoisseur
NEW YORK -- The week after composer Sean Hickey's debut CD was released in November, the album sneaked into the 100th and final spot on the Billboard classical chart. "Left at the Fork in the Road" sold 119 copies nationwide that week, according to the Nielsen Soundscan service that tracks CD retail sales.
"Left at the Fork in the Road" showcases Hickey's chamber music. He writes tonal, highly rhythmic music that's easily grasped. Clarity, immediacy of expression, precise craftsmanship and a tannic, neoclassic bite are virtues. He is more comfortable with short forms and direct emotion than large structures and veiled mysteries -- legacies, he admits, of being weaned on three-minute pop songs.
- The Detroit Free Press
…his work is polished and his argument succinct—no small achievements.
Beara is a five-and-a-half-minute piece for unaccompanied cello that at moments sounds as if two instruments are playing. The effect seems to derive from bowing legato on one string while raising or lowering the bow to play one or more short notes on an adjacent string, a difficult technique one must master to play the third movement of Bach’s A-Minor Sonata for unaccompanied violin. Hickey also writes passages where the cello must bow and pizzicato simultaneously, another effect that contributes to the multiple instrument illusion. The musical vocabulary is modern, but not to the point of testing one’s belief that it’s actually music. In fact, Hickey’s piece is quite expressive; and after two or three hearings one can even anticipate its next gesture as naturally as one anticipates the next measure in Beethoven.
…flutists, clarinetists, bassoonists, and even guitarists seeking new material ought to have a listen.
- Classics Today
…”Left at the Fork in the Road”, the first CD dedicated entirely to Hickey’s compositions. And when it came out on Naxos American Classics in November, it debuted on the Billboard Classical Top 100 chart – almost unheard of for a young composer.
- C&G Newspapers
Billboard Top 100 Classical Chart - #100 – week of 11/22/05 – Sean Hickey – Left at the Fork in the Road (Naxos American Classics)
Sean Hickey’s CV includes an impressive array of commissions and performances, due no doubt to the combination of adventurousness and accessibility that we find on this disc of nine short works. The longest, at just over 13 minutes is his Flute Sonata, whose three movements boast a nice combination of attractive melody, energetic, complex rhythms, and in the middle movement, a lively perkiness. Five other short pieces for various combinations of instruments, exhibit similar qualities. They include the aptly named Fluff for solo flute, the flute-clarinet duet Pair of Pants (Hickey has a penchant for oddball titles), and a piece for bassoon and piano, Granfaloon, that goes against typecasting by stressing the agility and lyricism the of which the instrument is capable. The immediacy and brevity of the short works on this disc seem to demand radio airplay. Included in the mix are two vocal pieces, a somber To the Wars, a setting of a 17th-century poem for soprano, and Sagesse, sung to an English translation of a Verlaine poem, for soprano and tenor with a chamber orchestra that plays a prominent role. The instrumental performances throughout are excellent, the singing less so.
Sean Hickey is a relatively new composer, whose career is steadily on the rise. He garnered large-scale attention in 2005 when Naxos American Classics released "Left at the Fork in the Road," a compilation of the young writer's works. It is possible that Hickey may have conceived "Ampersand" while under the influence of the kind of folk writing popularized in the early twentieth century by Igor Stravinsky.
And herein lies the constant danger of assessing new works from contemporary composers. Even when a bias may be defended as a mere "point of reference," it becomes nearly impossible to isolate an artistic gesture in the present without acknowledging its historical backdrop. That being said, there is still a very distinctive freshness about Hickey's style, and his track record of fine compositions provides more than enough evidence to suggest that the young composer is rightfully earning a place amongst the finest of his generation.
- Classical New Jersey
(On Dalliance): dusky and fragrant, with firefly detail.
- San Jose Mercury News
(On the Clarinet Concerto): The playing was utterly superb all around, and once again Mr. Hickey packed many ideas into his composition without ever digressing from a solid thematic core. The second of the three movements was unique in effect, a restless, yet haunting recollection of life in the US heartland, while the frenzied finale was all metropolitan New York.
- New Music Connoisseur
…demandingly and effectively written for the piano.
- New York Concert Review
Avatar – a trio athat is brimming with energy, charm, and more than a few moments that reminded me of Walter Piston's exuberant music.
…your music seems devoted to giving pleasure, which is a more-than-honorable goal and one that too few composers strive for these days. Your work is delightful, both engaging and well-wrought.
- Christopher Rouse, composer
Your music is subtle, varied, and (like a good Martini) dry and tart, and even at its darkest moments, wit is never far away.
- Mark Adamo, composer
I particularly like "The Birds of Barclay Street" which admirably (as a memorial piece) says no more than it must. The openness and directness of the music is touching and impressive. The writing is spare but exploits the piano's capacity for grave sonorities most effectively. "Dolmen" is palpably (uncryptically!) pianistic.
-Howard Skempton, composer
The name Sean Hickey may already be a familiar one within contemporary music circles, but the young composer’s level of recognition is about to rise to new heights. Hickey’s debut disc with the prestigious Naxos label, Left at the Fork in the Road, is set for release on November 15, 2005, and will feature an assortment of the composer’s chamber music works, as performed by several prominent players who have championed his music in the past.
- Music & Vision
In addition to the honored repertoire staples on the upcoming program, Sakharova will also unveil the world première of Ampersand by award-winning contemporary composer, Sean Hickey. 'I first became acquainted with Sean's music when I collaborated in the recording of his new record, Left at the Fork in the Road. I decided to commission a piece from him because I believe his music is both interesting and fresh. There are many new composers, but the music is not always very good. I find Sean's music to be very appealing because it possesses a special character that truly speaks to audiences. Also, Ampersand embodies certain Slavic and Eastern European elements, which speak to me culturally.'
- Music & Vision