Hodkinson counters classic notions of contemporary music
August 13, 2009
ASPEN – The concert was already a week in the past, the composer was 75 years old, and the crowd that showed up was there to see composers who are far older than that. Still, the world premiere of his String Quartet No. 5 performed by the Jupiter String Quartet at an Aspen Music Festival chamber music concert in late July was giving composer Sydney Hodkinson visceral pleasure.
“It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in the last five years, both the performance and the piece,” said the septuagenarian Hodkinson, who has been a composer in residence in Aspen, and the director of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, since 1998. “It turned out to be a very strong piece. And they played the living crap out of it. It was written in 2001, and as it turns out, worth waiting for.”
Looking past his own nose, Hodkinson observed the crowd enjoying his violin concerto almost as much as he did. “Right after it was over people stood up,” he added. “They don’t often do that for our kind of music. And this was for an audience of people who were there to see the Bach and Beethoven.”
So much for the idea that contemporary music is joyless and unpleasant, and that the people who compose it couldn’t care less about the audience’s reaction to it. While the string quartet may have been a recent highlight, Hodkinson is witness to that sort of energy and passion on a regular basis. He is retired from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where he taught for a quarter-century, but in northeast Florida, when he’s not swimming, Hodkinson occupies the Almand Chair of Composition at Florida’s Stetson University. And in Aspen, where he came at the invitation of music director David Zinman, he leads concerts by both the Music Festival’s composition students and by the Contemporary Ensemble.
“It’s energizing and heart-warming to come here,” said Hodkinson. “If you listen to the naysayers, you hear that recording companies are going out of business, things like that. But you can’t come here and feel that way about the future, when you come here and are intimately involved with creators who are serious about creating new work.”
Hodkinson was particularly impressed by the effort turned in by the Jupiter String Quartet. “They played what I wrote so carefully,” he said, adding that the quartet is scheduled to perform the piece on two dates in South America. “Some of them were ‘dangerous’ moments, and they worked so well. They did what I thought they would do. To have young people like these kids play your music with such verve and love and care, that’s heartening. That’s worth getting excited about.”
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Hodkinson has a busy week ahead. Friday, the Individual Composition Studies Program Recital is set for 8:30 p.m. at Harris Hall. The Chamber Music concert on Saturday, Aug. 15 (4 p.m., Harris Hall) has Hodkinson conducting the Contemporary Ensemble in a performance of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Graal theatre. There is another composers’ concert on Thursday, Aug. 20, and the Contemporary Ensemble makes a final appearance in the Chamber Music concert on Aug. 22, performing Cantus Iambeus by the Brit, Harrison Birtwistle.
Hodkinson is hoping to have another peak sort of moment with Saturday’s performance of the Saariaho piece, which is essentially a violin concerto spotlighting soloist Austin Wulliman.
“It’s a very demanding violin part,” said Hodkinson. “But it serves a very musical end. It’s not atmospheric for its own sake; the composer has spent a lot of time in Paris and is greatly influenced by what is called the French spectral school.
“It’s an unusual piece because it’s for 19 players and it’s a half-hour long. It’s not often the Contemporary Ensemble presents a piece with that large an ensemble.”