An interview with composer Sean Hickey
By Joshua Cheek
With a catalogue approaching nearly a hundred works in multiple genres, including chamber, orchestral, choral and concertante, as well as finding his music on anthologies with works by composers such as Saariaho, Berio, Tishchenko, Foss, John Kinsella, Ronald Corp, and Phillip Ramey, there can be little doubt that Sean Hickey has established himself within the international fraternity of contemporary composers. Despite a busy career in a turbulent music industry, (Hickey is Senior Vice President in charge of Sales and Business Development for the classical music powerhouse Naxos of America), 2019 is already shaping up to be a very eventful year for the New York based composer and as February 2019 draws to a close, two new works, Lunula (for flute and English Horn) and Single Malt, (for string orchestra) have seen their international release, with world premieres of a new clarinet trio by Trio Eclipse, and a large-scale work for solo piano inspired by Yuval Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Q: In your online bio, you described your musical journey as beginning with an electric guitar and a stack of Van Halen albums and even as late as college, your primary focus was on jazz, rather than classical music. What was your 'Aha!" moment? What was the piece or composer that you heard that turned you on to classical music?
I was struck by the proverbial bolt on a few occasions. As you noted, I grew up playing the guitar and rock radio led me to explore punk, progressive rock, jazz and Frank Zappa. It was through him that my interest in classical was first piqued. Unlike, say, a flutist or violinist, I wasn’t exposed to the repertoire at an early age. I taught myself Zeppelin songs, played in bands, and taught young students. Some of my earliest impressions of classical music came from experiencing the revolutionary classics of the 20th century, most notably The Rite of Spring, which felt like a megaton bomb. I was – and am – amazed that notated music could convey such savagery and primal force.
My biggest aha moment came when I was 15. I grew up in suburban Detroit and my parents took me on a trip to Chicago, where we saw George Solti lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert that included Stravinsky’s bizarre and beautiful Symphonies of Wind Instruments. This odd work – devoid of strings – made an immediate impression with its succession of near-static sounds and lack of any real development. The half-empty stage only added to its mystery. It was a mind-blowing concert from one of our finest orchestras and I was hooked. It sounds entirely cliché, but by intermission, I became a composer.
I owe each and every success in my musical life to my parents, who never once discouraged me from doing what I wanted, and supported all of my ambition.
Q: Were you interested in composing before then? Do you remember the first piece you composed?
I don’t feel I have any natural ability for music, besides a reliable and inquisitive ear. Any success I’ve had has been the result of a lot of work. When I was 12, my parents told me I couldn’t waste away my summer listening to the radio or sitting around, so I chose to learn the electric guitar. In those days, one could rent an instrument from a local store, which is what we did one Saturday. By the time we pulled in the driveway, I had written my first song on the open strings of a rented guitar. My first song that actually employed a few open chords (C, Am, Dm, G as I recall), was called Remember. That much I do.
I went on to study jazz guitar at Oakland University and then later at Wayne State University in Detroit, all while performing in a fairly-successful regional band. I soured on some of the conventions and mannerisms of jazz, and switched to composition at Wayne. The first piece I composed, under the tutelage of the brilliant Detroit-based composer, James Hartway, was a solo flute piece called Situation, a work without a key center or even barlines.
Q: What - or WHO influenced you the most?
I must say that the raw energy of punk, rock, and the progressive impulses of bands and artists such as King Crimson and Zappa were among my earliest influences, and they still remain. My work today borrows liberally from many examples of popular music, though often veiled or somewhat buried in an instrumental texture. My Clarinet Concerto has a near literal quote from Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir that few pick up on. One of my chamber pieces lifts the horn rhythm from the end of September, by Earth, Wind and Fire. I can’t exactly recall where I left it.
Without question, the greatest influence on me is the greatest artistic force of the 20th century: Stravinsky. I could go on and on about the man’s life and work, and I make an annual pilgrimage to his home in Hollywood, just to stand there in the street and imagine Agon being hashed out in the study. Ravel is a major influence on me in his careful attention to craft and an inexhaustible melody, and I could say the same about Debussy. I’m a huge fan of French music of the first decades of the 20th century, and Milhaud, Poulenc and Honegger are three composers that made their way into my early musical thinking. I’m also a massive fan of the best of Latin American concert music, starting with Ginastera and Revueltas, and I do what I can to promote music throughout the wider range of the Americas whenever I can. The populist, extrovert, rhythm-propelled works of these composers – along with much of the music of Copland – stay with me.
The last composer I must point out is Shostakovich. No one can stuff more meaning into a rising minor third or a falling half-step. On the page his music is banal, almost child-like, but I know of no composer in history – except Bach perhaps – whose personality and humanity burst through every measure. In the darkest days of the Stalinist Soviet, his very existence was threatened, and for a great many years afterward. In an age where art is marginalized he stands as one who didn’t bow to external forces. He is one of the greatest of my heroes.
Q: What was the rudest awakening you experienced as a composer, you know, the old "perception vs. reality" thing.
I think all of us experience the “what’s written on the page doesn’t always work when performed by people”, and I learned that among my first performances in Detroit, which were of course under-rehearsed and abysmal. My ideas were ambitious but my facility was certainly lacking. I remember buying two bottles of wine for a pair of musicians premiering a piece of mine, and which I felt was not worthy of a gift after witnessing the butchery. I was so depressed by their execrable performance that me and my friends drank the wine sitting on the curb on Cass Avenue. Memory fails as to who brought the corkscrew.
I’ve had the great fortune of spending time in the magical city of St. Petersburg, where I recorded two of my concertos. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War carried prejudices at that time, prejudices later reinforced in the era of Putin’s Russia. But I’ve never encountered such unflappable and hard-working musicians anywhere in the world. Orchestral players there – especially in a recording environment – play and play and play, virtually without break and never with complaint. 9 or 10 hour recording sessions were not uncommon in my case, and with two short breaks for tea and cigarettes for the players. Not a rude awakening, but a surprising one.
Q: It is interesting that your experience with the Russian musicians had such an impact on you, especially in light of America’s past and current history with the former Soviet Union. A number of your works have dealt with contemporary and political topics. Given the current political and social climate, do you feel that artists, composers and musicians have an obligation to raise awareness through their work, or as Zappa famously said, should they shut up and play their guitars?
Man, I could go on and on here. First, all of the outrage bottled up and diffused is partially as a result of my own privilege, and though it is shared by most people I know, I cannot know what it means to be a woman, to be gay, or to walk this earth as a religious minority or a person of color. For at least the first year of the broiling, vomitous, runny diarrhea hell that is Trump, I questioned how I – and even music – might possibly have a place in our sad and beleaguered world. I saw no home for my next string quartet in the Resistance, nor could my work give much comfort to a child separated from his parents at any sort of border, drawn by politicians, defended by their servants, and observed by peoples. What a fiction, all of it, concocted by arrogant and greedy humans.
My work is not political, for the reason that politics ceased being politics for me in November 2017, and likely at a few points prior that I was mostly blind to before. A well-meaning colleague told me once that it would be best to tone down the politics in my discussions with others. I replied that the fighting spirit – awakened in me in my middle-age – is not a fight about politics in the least, but for humanity’s very existence, for the country we love and the planet that is home to all of us. For what other reason would we wage such a battle? Politics can be the domain of those in parliaments, congresses, boardrooms, steakhouses and state houses. The war for existence must be led by – and for – the people. We artists should be at the vanguard. Those that wave the flag of music come in peace.
Woody Guthrie thought that his six strings could kill fascists. Billy Bragg, one of my idols, thinks similarly and with an original wit. Lastly, If Zappa only shut up and played his guitar he would only be known to posterity as a fine guitarist, and not the genius musical polymath and social force that he was. As a father, it is my duty to leave this earth a better place for my son, just as my dad did for me.
Q: Over the years you've become quite the globe-trotter, but I still remember a trip you made some thirty years ago, practically a pilgrimage, to Ireland. You came back transformed, luminous; you definitely connected with something there! You spoke of the inherent and musicality of the Irish and how song and poetry seem to spring up from every crack and crevice. I mention this because in a number of your works you summon Gaelic melodies and rhythms to tremendous effect. It is almost as if you are drawing upon the ancient and primal power of the ancestors. Or are they just good tunes?
Amazing to think that my first trip to Ireland – the one you reference – was close to 30 years ago. I made seven trips to my ancestral home over the next eight years. I’ve been a fan of traditional music from the Celtic lands for a number of years, and have sat in on several sessions in that time, trying to hold my own. I do indeed love a great tune, and I think reels, jigs, strathspeys and other folk forms have a lot in common with baroque dance forms. Listen to Bach’s Brandenburgs and compare it to a set one might hear in a pub in Galway or New York. The shifting harmony and dense counterpoint might be lacking in the latter, but the relentless, motoric, near-unison rhythms are all there. I love instrumental music with a strong beat, whether stated or implied, and a reel or a baroque gavotte satisfy that for me.
The traditional tunes I have used are original, modified or borrowed. I seem to want to employ them in the final pages of a piece, as a sort of melodic culmination. Perhaps the most joyful musicmaking I know is experiencing the Chieftains’ Live at Matt Malloy’s – a charming pub in Westport, County Mayo – and feeling the roof torn off the place.
Q: To date you've composed four concertos - the idiom definitely suits you, but one that comes with risks and rewards. On one hand, you are writing for some amazing musicians but writing idiomatically, and to the musician's strengths can be a challenge. Additionally, there's is the question of balance between soloist and "orchestra." For instance, two of your concertos, the ones for mandolin and recorder are scored for winds and a rather pro-active percussion section. How do you find a satisfying balance? How do you approach the collaborative process? Are your soloists co-creators?
All four of my concertos have been commissions, so I have composed all of them with a particular person’s personality and capability in mind, but with a mind toward posterity and later adoption by other soloists. I think the biggest challenge for the composer of concertos is trying to find a suitable balance so as not to overwhelm the solo instrument. I do a lot more instrumental subtraction than addition I find, but one can let loose in tutti sections where the soloist is not playing.
As I think you know, the ability to choose the orchestra of my liking – in the case of my recorder concerto, A Pacifying Weapon – was one of the great opportunities of my career. Professor Gert Mortensen, of the Royal Danish Conservatory, gave me the pick of his collection of percussion instruments, rumored to be the largest in the world. I spent close to a day cataloging, photographing and using most of them in Copenhagen in 2015. Several made their way into my concerto. Our dear friend Lars Hannibal arranged for Michala Petri and me to meet with the head of the school, Bertel Krarup, as well as the heads of the different departments, to discuss the strengths of the students and sections. Imagine doing so at an American conservatory. I cannot. My work ended up being scored for a family of recorders, woodwinds, brass, harp and a large battery of percussion, much of it metallic, and no strings. I find the sound refreshing and the experience was utterly magical.
Q: Any interest in composing for electronic or digital media?
Very much so. When he was 10 and 11, my son was into many forms of electronic music, EDM, IDM and a few other genres. He learned Ableton and I’ve learned a tiny amount, but I hope and pray for enough time where I can create work from a DAW or any of the other tools available to today’s composers. I’m very interested in found sounds, the exploration of timbre, and a strong desire to create something ambient but with a bit of soul. Better get to work.
Over the past couple of decades both film music and game music have gained considerable classical credibility, especially if one is to believe the Top Classical lists from the UK. Game music in particular has evolved to a level of surprising sophistication and is both lucrative and supported by an enthusiastic fan base. As a composer, any interest in writing for visual media? Additionally, any thoughts from an industry perspective?
As a composer, I would say that I’d be interested in writing for the world of gaming, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet. I think the proliferation of originally-composed instrumental music is a great boon to the genre overall, since games are a huge gateway toward exploring more. We hear this pretty regularly. Think about it: movies have been scored for the better part of a century, yet despite some incredibly memorable scores over all those years, none may have the staying power of some gaming music. One may need to see a film numerous times in order to best appreciate and remember the music. The vast majority of films are seen only once. But games are, by nature, repeatable experiences. A game that is played only once is likely a bad game. So instrumental music has a way of sinking in through repetition. I welcome the opportunities gaming music brings to composers, and appreciate how it leads people to explore classical more broadly.
Q: It must give you a sense of pride to see your son following his own creative muse. Does he enjoy classical? Also, as a parent whose livelihood is dependent upon the future of classical music, in your opinion, how do we get young people involved and excited about classical concert music? Having music in the schools is of course important, but in both our cases, the spark that got us started was the result of an incredibly personal encounter, almost an epiphany with something “greater than ourselves.” There’s an “X” factor, I think. Do you feel that there is something that we, as classical music advocates need to address to guarantee the future of the music we love?
In my business, when we talk about music and its enjoyment in our age, we refer to consumption, as if music were a potato chip. The commodification, throw-away view of sound recordings– treated as plastic straws – is one of the biggest threats in my opinion. It likely will be for years I’m afraid. But the profusion of music that accompanies us throughout each day and night means that my son’s generation is far more open, more genre agnostic, than mine. My friends didn’t know how to categorize me in high school since I listened to just about everything, but he has me beat by a mile. He does enjoy classical, danced with the American Ballet Theater as a child (even on the stage at the Met and Carnegie Hall), and has attended concerts with me for as long as we can remember.
I’m passionate about music education and proud to play a small part in it every day. But you’re right: me, you, and a great many people I know first connected with the genre in a personal and memorable way. Perhaps it was a concert, a Looney Tunes cartoon (definitely my case), something heard on the radio or some form of serendipity. I choose to be positive about future generations, because they grow up with the world’s music at their fingertips. Though they are surely overwhelmed by choice, one is much more likely to encounter classical music than at any point in history. For those of us who might have been intimidated by classical music in the record store, separated from every other genre with the pair of glass doors, and manned by a creepy dude with mustard stains on his sweater vest, those barriers are now gone. The liberal in me welcomes a barrier-free world. With the glass doors removed, more people are experiencing classical music and many of them are not concert-goers, never played an instrument and never befriended a composer. We at Naxos developed a playlisting brand, unClassified, whose mission is to address and satisfy the “classically curious”. These listeners never would have opened the glass door but surely have some level of curiosity toward a broad genre, and our aim is to help deliver a satisfying experience. To enjoy classical music, one need only one thing: time. I don’t know if the future offers us any guarantees, but to the extent that people can find the needed time to listen, then classical music will have an audience.
Q: On a related topic, Work-Life balance is a major topic these days, so how do you find balance in your personal and creative life? You must be surrounded, even assaulted by music during every waking hour! How do you silence those "voices in your head" to focus on your own muse? Do you have a musical Marie Kondo helping you to simplify your musical headspace?
If there is such a person please send him or her my way. It is a balance I seek, but one I never find. The idea of rest is always appealing to me, until I do it. Then I think about work and I’m back to that. When I was in my early twenties, I would arise early on a Saturday, pour an enormous mug of tea and sit down at my piano for six hours to work on my string quartet. My life now has no such span of time and certainly hasn’t since I became a parent. Most of my work is built in very small chunks, at my piano, but also on airplanes, Brooklyn cafés, here and there. I noted the places where I worked on my symphony, and it totaled some twenty cities in nine countries. It was impossible when I was younger, but I’ve learned to break my work up into small bits, and find that I can do so despite the distractions of home and city life.
I’m a voracious listener of music and have been for as long as I can remember. It occurs to me that the act of composition is one of the only times I don’t have music playing in my day, but even that isn’t true. I remember working on my solo violin piece, Dance Apotheosis, in a café over a period of a few weekends, where that dreadful Ed Sheeran song played over and over.
Q: You mentioned that you are currently working on a major work based on Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Given the extraordinary breadth and philosophic depth of Harari's book, should we expect an "Also Sprach Zarathrustra?" It's no secret as to why you might be attracted to this topic but HOW do you intend to translate it into an expressive, coherent musical experience?
I don’t rightly know, but I have my work cut out for me and I have pages of sketches and a rough overall design as of this writing. The book has had an immense effect on me, but it was only in the past year that I thought of conceiving some form of musical response. Frankly, I wasn’t too sure about the idea, but as I discussed it with a few people it became clear that I had a viable idea that might have life beyond a non-programmatic concert piece, and many really responded to it, as so many have responded to the book.
Harari has a rare gift of taking an enormous topic – the history of humankind – and making it accessible without it losing a bit of its vast sweep and mystery. I hope to be able to achieve something similar with my work, a quasi-history of musical development on a large scale, and scored for a modern concert piano. I am working with a group of interested pianists and our hope is to have simultaneous premieres on three continents. I plan on adding a fourth.
Q: Another work due this year is your commission for Trio Eclipse. From a reductionist perspective, one could say that the history of classical music has been the story of finding creative ways to fill old wine skins with new wine, but there are some musical assemblages that are just SO indelibly associated with a specific masterwork - the Clarinet Quintet, the “Pierrot Ensemble”, the “Debussy Trio” (flute, viola, harp) and the Clarinet Trio (clarinet, cello, piano, which happens to be the configuration of Trio Eclipse), that comparisons are almost inevitable. Your work Pied-a-terre, for the “Debussy Trio” both embraced and side-stepped some of these challenges, on one hand harkening to Debussy’s bucolic sound world, but still standing its own ground. I’m assuming your new trio will be a more extended working out of material, will you give Brahms a ‘tip of the hat’ or have you decided to start tabula rasa and make the genre over in your own image?
I believe I have, yes, and did my best with Pied-a-terre too, though the spectre of Debussy simply can’t be avoided with that combination. I’m hoping this one is less so, and I must confess that a lot of Brahms’ chamber music leaves me pretty cold, so I don’t feel much weight of tradition there.
I have an older work, Avatar, scored for clarinet, violin and piano, which I happen to think is one of my better works, and fiendishly difficult to play. This is entirely different, as I happen to have a bit of extra-musical inspiration. I can now disclose the work’s title, Tiergarten, after the big urban park in the heart of Berlin. I’ve been fortunate to travel to that city about once a year for the past several. Talk about ghosts. Since it was all but leveled during the war, the growing metropolis one now sees has little in common with the pre-war city. One of the few exceptions, though its trees were entirely cut down in 1944 for fuel, is the park. I find the place haunting and it’s one of my favorite places to jog in the very early hours, with the mist rising off the grass and the nearby Landswehr canal.
I’m not at all trying to paint a picture of a place, but rather to use the place as a springboard for material I associate with that great city. That includes cabaret, progressive rock and EDM. If I set out to do what I want, little of those things will be recognized at all in there, as I like to bury things deep into the musical fabric. There is however a more overt David Bowie quote. To me, Low, an album by a famous Englishman who retreated to a divided city to find anonymity and escape drugs, is just about the quintessential Berlin album.
But most importantly, I’m inspired by the impressive and dedicated playing of Trio Eclipse, who commissioned the work and who will perform and record it. They are immensely talented, and I’m pleased that they’re starting off by commissioning a work to add to the repertoire.
Q: I’ve just listened to your Viola Sonata, “Jefferson Chalmers”- as a fellow Detroiter, thanks for representin’, and as a former violist, THANK YOU for providing a meaty addition to the repertoire! Violists around the world shall forever speak your name with gratitude! What was your inspiration in choosing this historic old Detroit neighborhood? On the subject of “inspiration”, do you ever utilize non-musical strategies when composing? For example, rhythms based on the Fibonacci sequence, or a visual cue as Villa-Lobos famously did in “New York Skyline Melody”?
I very regularly use non-musical strategies when composing, but they’re often in the form of self-imposed limitations on my language and use of melody. I can be accused of not always being the best editor, and some of my older works could use a bit of trimming. I have often drawn a rough drawing or graph of a work, usually before beginning altogether. That graph often changes quite a bit so I don’t slavishly adhere to it, but I do find it helpful at time. My symphony “Olympus Mons” was composed this way, and full credit must go to John Corigliano who employs this method. I’ve been fortunate to speak with him on this several times.
Thanks for your kind words on my piece, commissioned by the wonderful violist Dimitri Murrath, and premiered in 2018 in San Francisco. This was a case of a set form that I wanted to work in – the sonata – colliding with an extra-musical inspiration of sorts: the neighborhood where my mom was born and grew up in, along with her four siblings and parents. Jefferson-Chalmers is in the far northeast of Detroit, bordered by the Detroit River where my grandfather worked as the chief engineer on the yacht of the DeRoy family, one of Detroit’s many industrialists of the time. The neighborhood was once quite prosperous and is proud of its nautical history. Years later, my parents were married in St. Martin’s, just blocks from my mom’s house. The 60s-90s were not kind to the area and most of the people moved out. I would say that roughly half of the houses are now gone, and vacant lots are the norm. A giant tree grows out of the St. Martin’s sacristy.
I spent a bit of time there in 2016 and 2017, and despite the gloom there are signs of a recovery and despite its distance from a newly-thriving downtown. I’m extremely proud to be from Detroit and find going back pretty fascinating. I hope to see the day when Jefferson Chalmers is full of families, operational places of worship, safe parks, and perhaps the restored theatre that hosted Tommy Dorsey and others when my mom was young.
Q: Do you have a "Dream Piece" - your own “Mysterium” or Universe Symphony - that unattainable summa of all things Hickey?
In some ways, I have written it. Since I’ve never heard it, I cannot say if it’s my best work or even good, but it’s without a doubt my most ambitious. My Symphony “Olympus Mons” is very nearly as massive as the largest mountain in the solar system, the Arizona-sized, 16-mile-high mountain on Mars. Scored for massive orchestra, the piece is unlike anything I’ve written, composed without commission nor much hope of immediate performance, and I worked on it for more than two years.
I’m kind of partial to my Clarinet Concerto – which usually comes off well in the hands of a great soloist, conductor and orchestra – and I also like the simplicity and the subtle nod to France of my Pied-a-terre, scored for flute, viola and harp. Both have been recorded for Delos. And my concerto for recorder, A Pacifying Weapon, commissioned, premiered and recorded by Michala Petri, for Our Recordings, allowed me to explore a combination I’ve never explored before. It was a joy.
But if I had to pick a favorite and most successful piece, it is my piano quintet, Terroir. Commissioned by pianist Xiayin Wang, and premiered by her and the Fine Arts Quartet, it too is an ambitious three-movement work but one I find very satisfying. It had only its second performance at Festival Napa in 2018. Though it needs a bit of editing, I challenged myself to compose something that I felt was 100% idiomatic to the premiere ensemble. The premiere performance at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall was absolutely magical, especially in the work’s final pages. I’m working on having it recorded in the coming year or so.
Q: As a result of your position at Naxos you have a unique perspective on the current state of the music industry. The life of a composer has always been fraught with challenges but the same internet that has disrupted the market for physical media has also opened up tremendous opportunities for young composers and ensembles to make their music available digitally, whether self-promotion via social media or delivering their music directly through self-produced/self-marketed recordings. Do you see this form of "micro-marketing" as the future for contemporary music are do you see other channels evolving?
When I graduated college, I walked to my bank on Woodward Ave, got a slip from the teller that told me what I had in savings, and thought I had better get to work or learn something else. I didn’t know how or where to begin. Now, despite all kinds of cautionary warnings I give to composers about the exploitative methods and the long-term play of Big Tech, there have never been more opportunities for the composers willing to utilize the opportunities that media provides.
The internet provides us a window onto the world, though it also affords us a view in all of its infinite ugliness. The first goal of any composer should be to produce meaningful work. Even when recording or promoting existing work, I feel a bit lost if I’m not working on something new. I lecture on new media and musician entrepreneurship for composers and artists regularly, and I find it deeply rewarding. Nowadays, all one needs is a bit of bandwidth to take one’s message to the world. Twenty-somethings likely take it for granted, but I do not. I’m still amazed at how potent one’s connections can be in disseminating information at low or no cost. This wasn’t possible 15 years ago.
I am so grateful to do what I do; I make little professional distinction between my administrative and artistic roles. Perhaps since I work in the industry, I think recordings are essential for all of those who want their work to go to work for them. There is simply no better calling card. My company happens to handle the distribution of some 800 record labels, most of them classical, and many of them exclusively throughout the world. The musician is no longer bereft of options, but if anything she is overwhelmed by the tyranny of choice. Any label needs to review a compelling business case – presented clearly by the artist – as to why your proposal is unique and can make the label money, expand markets, etc. This affords us the opportunity to think commercially even if our work might be enjoyed by a very small minority. Fortunately, there are more label and self-release options than ever before. All artists should think like LLC’s, self-contained entities responsible for the creation, dissemination and promotion of one’s creative output.
At mid-career, Hickey’s music has attained an undeniable maturity, and enjoys an enviable profile among the works of his peers. Eschewing trendy gestures, Hickey focuses instead on confident craftsmanship and constructing an engaging musical narrative. While working primarily within a traditional mold – even if their titles may not always belie that careful construction – Hickey’s personal approach and humanity has won him many enthusiastic listeners and it is increasingly clear that his work is a living, breathing example of contemporary music designed for the “classically curious”