January 17, 2014 6:36 pm

Nicolas Hodges and the case for ‘difficult’ contemporary music

Nicolas Hodges at his piano©Dieter Mayr

In his acceptance speech at last month’s British Composer Awards in London, Sir Harrison Birtwistle paid an unusual tribute to Nicolas Hodges, for whom he had written his award-winning solo piano work Gigue Machine. “Nic Hodges,” the veteran composer said, “is becoming like my Peter Pears” – a reference to the English tenor for whom Benjamin Britten, Pears’ life partner, wrote many of his most celebrated works.

Hodges laughs when I mention the Pears encomium. “We’re very close,” he says of his friendship with Birtwistle, “but it was a funny thing for Harry to say, because it’s not as if we’re having a relationship.”

What the composer meant was that, in the much same way Pears acted as Britten’s muse, there is something in Hodges’ artistic personality that inspires him. It motivates him to write music, in the knowledge that Hodges will make it sound convincing in performance. Birtwistle is not the only composer to have discovered this quality in the 43-year-old London-born pianist. Elliott Carter wrote his Dialogues for Hodges. Gerald Barry did the same with his witty new piano concerto, premiered in Munich two months ago and coming to Birmingham in June. And on Wednesday at the Barbican, Hodges will give the UK premiere of a new concerto by French composer Hugues Dufourt.

Isn’t all this contemporary stuff a bit much for such an obviously talented and versatile pianist? Most soloists make their career with Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Schumann. Hodges plays their music too, but he champions the new because, as a composer himself, that’s what excites him – as it has done for almost as long as he can remember.

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Hodges’ father, a keen amateur musician, had been a BBC studio manager when Stockhausen persuaded the BBC Symphony Orchestra to improvise in the late 1960s. A copy of John Cage’s silent piece 4’33” sat on the bookshelf at home. Hodges got to know the music of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg at school, and bought Stockhausen’s piano scores for his 16th birthday. “It all somehow slotted into place,” he says of his adolescent interest in modernism.

Thanks to Hodges and a handful of kindred spirits, repertoire once dubbed “ivory tower music” is winning wider acceptance among the concertgoing public. It’s as if, after a decade or so in which the avant-garde seemed to be in retreat, complexity is making a comeback.

“Things do seem to be more relaxed,” observes Hodges, who is a professor at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule, one of Germany’s leading conservatoires. “In my early twenties I was playing contemporary music in a ghetto. Now I play in front of thousands.”

He says it is vital that conservatoires and music schools make new music an integral part of the curriculum, so that “it feels normal. My students are playing new music far more readily than 20 or 30 years ago. It’s to do with musical health, that you are conversant with a wide range of styles. You can’t play Mozart piano concertos without knowing his operas. It can be gibberish [in performance] and often is.”

Living in Germany for the past eight years has given Hodges a better appreciation of the UK cultural climate. He says that, although he now feels a “foreigner” when he returns to London, “there seems to be more diversity in arts production in the UK. It’s as if constraints in funding have forced people to be more experimental, because they are not relying on the expectations of any funding body.”

But Germany remains the cradle of the avant-garde, with plentiful funding and widespread respect for the role of the arts in public life. “Audiences [for new music] are pretty huge, but there are also restrictions. Fashion controls a lot of the avant-garde. There’s an in-crowd, and always one or two golden boys. A lot of composers don’t get played because they’re not on the list. Try talking to anybody in Germany about John Adams – there’s total incomprehension.”

On the question of the composer-performer relationship, Hodges says it is possible to have a musical collaboration without much personal empathy – and vice versa. With the famously earthy Barry, whom Hodges visited in Dublin while preparing his piano concerto for performance, “it was very relaxed. After only a few minutes he had pushed me off the piano stool. He showed me the tempi were all possible, even if they were very fast.”

Birtwistle’s next piece, which Hodges will premiere in September as part of the composer’s 80th birthday celebrations, promises a potent contrast. “Harry has written a lot of piano music that is very active, but he is now trying to write something slow, with less incident. Fast music is relatively easy, because activity is interesting – the more notes there are, the more incidents there are. With slow music you have to replace it with tonality that allows you to produce tension and relaxation. That’s a lot harder.”

Hodges first met Birtwistle in 1987 but their collaboration did not blossom until 17 years later, when Hodges persuaded the composer to let him work on The Axe Manual, a work Birtwistle had by then withdrawn. “Sometimes he needs that close working relationship with a performer,” says Hodges, referring to Birtwistle’s previous collaborations with clarinettist Alan Hacker and trumpeter/conductor Elgar Howarth.

Things were different with Carter, who died just over a year ago aged 103. By the time they met, the American composer was already over 90, and Hodges had few expectations. They lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic and there were plenty of other pianists wanting music from Carter. “People said Dialogues would never happen, but suddenly it did,” he chuckles, referring to the Carter concerto he premiered in 2004. “What I learnt from him was the importance of treating his music like wind instrument lines – not staccato and unvocal. I sat with him during his Variations for Orchestra at Tanglewood in 2008, and he spent the whole performance singing the main themes along with the orchestra. It was the most wonderful thing for me to experience.”

It’s that sort of enthusiasm for, and closeness to, the pulse of the new that has always driven Hodges and given his performances such conviction. “People say it’s ‘challenging’ to do contemporary music,” he says, “but it’s hugely difficult to produce performances of any classical piano music worth doing. A lot of performances are just not that interesting or insightful into how the music works. All great music is ‘difficult’ in one way or another. It just happens that I’m more at home with the difficulties of modern music than most others are.”

Nicolas Hodges and the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform Hugues Dufourt’s ‘On the Wings of the Morning’, Barbican, London, January 22. barbican.org.uk

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