Sounds Heard: Sean Hickey—Concertos

Sounds Heard: Sean Hickey—Concertos

I’ve always found it remarkable that Sean Hickey, who is also the national sales and business development manager for Naxos of America, has had time to create any music of his own. 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.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

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.