The ensemble is Furious, the conductor is content
The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble band is dubbed the Furious Band. The name is no reflection, however, on the ensemble’s director and conductor, Sydney Hodkinson.Hodkinson is a happy guy: happy with his recent retirement after 25 years at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; happy with the life of composing, gardening and swimming – lots of swimming – that he and his wife, Betty Deischer, share in a quiet spot in northeast Florida.And Hodkinson is high on the state of classical music. After seeing the music suffer in the mid-20th century, a victim of composers placing cold, hard technique above emotion and accessibility, Hodkinson says he has watched the music make an impressive recovery. And the audiences, he said, are beginning to recover too, after several decades when new music was approached with trepidation and fear.”That is connected to the ’50s and ’60s, when composers were not really addressing their audience,” said Hodkinson, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastman, studied at the Princeton Seminars, and earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1968. “Over time, since the ’50s, the major change has been moving from a very narrow spectrum of new music to a very large salad bowl that we have now.”Hodkinson will offer some evidence of how big that bowl is with a concert tonight, at 8 p.m. at Harris Hall. The Aspen Music Festival concert, which features the Furious Band, soprano Carmen Pelton and trumpeters Raymond Mase and Kevin Cobb, features a wide variety of music from a broad range of composers.Opening the concert is Hodkinson’s own “Clarion,” written for two trumpets and with a surprise ending. There is “Paramo,” a piece by the young Mexican composer Zohn-Muldoon, that Hodkinson describes as “like an extroverted Mexican dance – happy, bubbling in spots.”Scottish composer David Horne’s Concerto for Six Players, said Hodkinson, is “complex in spots, extremely virtuosic for the players, one of the most difficult ensemble scores I’ve seen in years.”Also on the program are Elliott Carter’s short duo “Esprit rude/Esprit doux,” and Albert’s “To Wake the Dead: Six Sentimental Songs and an Interlude,” set to text by James Joyce. And for those who have a certain conception of new music as unaffecting, Hodkinson says Albert’s piece, for soprano and chamber ensemble, is something to witness.”I can see an older couple coming and hearing the Albert piece and crying,” said Hodkinson. “The days of all new music being ugly, difficult, tense and gnarly are long gone. Things like the sense of humor, the glory of sound, are all well back in the ambience of young composers.”Hodkinson has even more reason to be joyful with the arrival of the Furious Band.In past years, the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble was put together piecemeal, from unrelated applicants from across the world. This year, at the suggestion of Music Festival music director David Zinman, the Contemporary Ensemble was plucked, as an ensemble, from the State University of New York-Stonybrook. The seven-piece combo came with its own name, the Furious Band. Hodkinson is finding that working with an ensemble that has over a year of history behind it makes for quicker learning.”They’re friends. They get along very well,” said Hodkinson, who will spend the entire summer in Aspen, directing the Contemporary Ensemble and, during the second half of the summer, teaching composition to some 30 students. “So there aren’t the personality conflicts that you get when you select from a wide pool of students.”The music they play is sometimes demanding. It ain’t Brahms or Sibelius. When there’s already that communal thing there, you can start the actual music-making a lot quicker. There’s not much time spent on the note-learning or the rhythmical aspect.”The Furious Band has already performed a pair of concerts this summer – one program devoted to the works of Elliott Carter, with whom Hodkinson studied at the Princeton Seminars, and another playing compositions by current Aspen Music School composition master students. Hodkinson was particularly impressed with how the ensemble handled the master students’ pieces, which ranged from angry to emotional to humorous.Hodkinson, too, likes to take in music from all corners. Beginning as a classical violinist and then clarinetist, Hodkinson turned to jazz and the baritone saxophone. Earlier in his teaching career, wherever his day job took him – Virginia, Ohio, Michigan – many of his nights were spent jamming in the local jazz clubs.He still finds new sounds to enjoy; his jazz musician son recently turned him on to Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, and he is a fan. To Hodkinson, it is just a matter of opening the ears to new things, something he hopes people will do for the Furious Band.”It’s all whether you accept the idea of hearing a sound you’ve never heard before as being wonderful, or just being awful,” he said. “If everyone could come to the concert just tabula rasa, thinking, `Here’s this composer, let’s see what happens… .’ If they come with that idea, none of this music is going to bore them.”
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