The linden, in the fervors of July,
Hums with a louder concert. When the wind
Sweeps the broad forest in its summer prime,
As when some master-hand exulting sweeps
The keys of some great organ, ye give forth
The music of the woodland depths, a hymn
Of gladness and of thanks.
– William Cullen Bryant: Among the Trees
This month, despite the weather’s best attempts to immerse us in what feels like a premature autumn, music lovers in the UK are in for a treat – a bright, warming ray of sunshine – brought to us, from the United States, in the form of the young rising star, Thomas Nickell: a pianist who has already gathered great praise around the world.
This is his first – hopefully of very many – visits to these shores; and it is rendered even more special by the fact that he will be giving not only the UK première of his own Piano Sonata No.3, but also the first London performance of “Britain’s greatest living composer” David Matthews’ Piano Concerto, Op.111. Both of these will play pivotal rôles in two momentous Orchestra of the Swan concerts (on 10 July 2016 and 16 July 2016) – although his actual début will be with the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra (on 9 July 2016) – all conducted by OOTS’ Artistic Director David Curtis.
Despite his intensely busy schedule – and with a great deal of help from Paolo Pezzangora, OOTS’ Marketing Manager – I finally managed to catch up with him for the following email interview. His direct and well-informed answers, for me, demonstrate a deep and extremely well-developed musical intelligence – and have not only therefore raised my expectations even further; but also act as proof that these concerts will be very special indeed. Next weekend cannot come soon enough!
Looking through the classical (particularly the 18th, 19th and early 20th century) keyboard repertoire, many – if not all – of those composers (for example, Mozart, Liszt, Prokofiev – and many, many more…) regularly premièred and toured their own works; and yet this is somewhat unusual, today. Stephen Hough obviously comes to mind as someone who famously plays and composes – but why do you think it is so rare, nowadays, for creator and player to be one and the same? And do you think writing and performing your own music informs the way you interpret the works of others? (And how does it feel to have been christened ‘The American Mozart’, as a result, by the Spanish press?!)
I think that it is a peculiar and unfortunate thing that we don’t see so many composers/performers anymore. Stephen Hough is a perfect example, and someone who I happen to greatly admire for his amazing creativity as both a composer and pianist. I think this sort of musician has become such a rarity in the classical world because of the emphasis on pianistic abilities or compositional abilities separately. Young pianists are put under so much pressure to succeed in competitions and play incredibly virtuosic repertoire at such a young age that it becomes less about the individual personality of the performer, and more about the technical skill of the performance. That wasn’t so much the case back in the day. Pianists were more free to put their ideas into original compositions. I think that for me, being a composer has always been a big part of being a pianist, and vice versa. I don’t want to say that I try to recompose the works of other composers, but I look at interpreting the works of other composers in as inventive a way as possible. It is certainly a huge honor to be given the nickname of ‘The American Mozart’ because Mozart was such an amazing composer as well as performer. I feel I have a lot to live up to with that nickname though!
What inspired your Piano Sonata No.3 – which you will be playing in the UK – and how would you describe it? Is there anything that we, the audience, should listen out for – e.g. any particular motif; the work’s adherence to/fulfilment of what we expect a ‘sonata’ to be…?
It is hard to say exactly what the inspiration behind my third sonata was, but I think it certainly has some reflections of the wartime Russian composers, especially Shostakovich. Some American music provided inspiration as well; Copland mostly. Liszt has also always been a major influence on my own compositions, and there is actually a small little reference to his massive Piano Sonata in B minor, which is one of the monuments of the piano repertoire. My sonata adheres only loosely to the traditional definition of sonata form. The piece is in one single, free-flowing movement that contains all three main parts of sonata form: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. The whole piece builds up until the recapitulation, which is definitely the most climactic section of the piece. Overall, my goal with the piece was a work that is traditional in terms of its name, but not traditional in terms of the free-flowingness of the movement. The pseudo-sonata-form isn’t entirely noticeable on the surface, but becomes clear through more in-depth analysis.
David Matthews’ Piano Concerto Op.111 (2009) opens with a slightly bluesy theme, marked Con moto moderato, that is developed by the piano with a shifting orchestral background. It immediately captures the attention and keeps it. There is a terrific central, spiky theme and a lovely atmospheric coda. The second movement marked Tango: Tempo di tango energico is a wonderfully effective fast and flowing piece, with the piano more obviously taking the tango rhythm…. A nocturnal sounding Elegy: Largo e mesto is a wonderful creation, full of elusive atmosphere with, at times, a pretty taxing part for the pianist.
The Allegro con spirito opens with string chords before the piano settles to a gentle melody leading to a livelier section before upward phrases suddenly end the work.
– Bruce Reader: David Matthews’ Piano Concerto…
You will be giving the London première of David Matthews’ Piano Concerto (at Kings Place, on 16 July 2016) – as well as performing it in Stratford-upon-Avon. What extra effort – if any – goes into preparing for the performance of such a contemporary piece (that is, one where you have access to the composer); and what draws you to such works in the first place? Additionally: how does it feel to be performing in London – and the UK – for the first time?
First of all, I must say how big a pleasure it is to get to work on David Matthews’ wonderful Piano Concerto. The work is full of such fascinating harmonic writing and very unique writing for the piano. With a work like this, I want to try to give as clear of an interpretation as possible. A piece as contemporary as this has not been heard as often as the Bach or Liszt works that I’ll also be performing on this trip, so I will strive to give a performance of the work that really makes the unique and novel ideas of the piece shine. It is also a great pleasure to perform this work in its land of origin. I feel that the UK has been home to many great musical talents, and I am very excited to visit London for the first time!
You will also be playing Bach’s (somewhat Vivaldian) D minor Piano Concerto BWV 1052 at all three concerts (in fact it will be the first work you play in the UK, in Cheltenham). For some reason, this immediately brings to mind my hero Glenn Gould’s (sometimes idiosyncratic) interpretations of the same composer. Has he influenced you in any way – for instance (although not wanting to put words in your mouth) demonstrating that there is always a new approach to ‘making sense’ of this music, in a modern age, on a modern instrument…?
That is funny that you mention Glenn Gould as your hero, because he is also my hero! His playing has fascinated me ever since I first heard it. His recording of this concerto especially is one of my very favorite recordings. I think he has influenced me by causing me to really consider how older music, Bach’s included, really fits into the modern world. I think that all music has the ability to be reborn no matter what the time period, but Gould especially showed how Bach can work on our modern instruments. In my opinion, Bach would be very happy with what Gould did with his music!
Being a good pianist is often like being a good detective. There are clues everywhere in the music that must be first recognized, then examined to see where they fit into an overall understanding of a work. Some clues are easy to see, and others remain hidden until you have played pieces many times. One uncovers these clues best by learning about [the composer’s] life, and anything that can influence the music, even before sitting at the piano to read the score.
By the way, you have stated that your favourite composer is JS Bach! Is this to listen to, as well as to perform…? Are there any special reasons why?! And is there any individual work of his that you would (also) describe as a “favourite”…?
Yes, Bach is my favorite composer! He is absolutely my favorite to listen to, and when I feel I can put together a successful interpretation of his music, he is also my favorite to perform. His music touches me in such a deep way, I think because I can feel the incredible passion and drive he had to compose music. He was also driven to compose by his strong belief that God was the force that compelled him to produce these outstanding works. Although I am not typically a spiritual person, Bach’s music represents for me the pure strength of the human spirit. The Mass in B Minor is a favorite of mine, as well as the D Minor concerto that I will play, and the Prelude and Fugue in E Major from Book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
A cheeky question: have you yet heard the Elgar orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor (originally for organ), which opens your first UK concert (and which I admit to suggesting to David Curtis…)? How do you feel about such ‘re-imaginings’ (especially in comparison with Bach’s transcriptions of his own works – for example, to produce the keyboard concertos…)?
I had not actually heard Elgar’s arrangement of Bach’s very moving organ work before, but I am familiar with several other re-imaginings of his music. I can only imagine that Bach would have been pleased with seeing his work rearranged for so many different sorts of ensembles, because he often rearranged his own music. The keyboard concertos are a perfect example of that because they come from earlier violin concertos, which even started out in different keys in their original violin versions. I think that re-imaginings of Bach’s works can be marvelous, and are contextually appropriate. Aside from Elgar’s arrangement, a few other arrangements of Bach’s works come to mind, such as Anton Webern’s very strange but beautiful orchestration of the Ricercar from The Musical Offering, and Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Prelude and Fugue in E Flat Major.
Finally (although I was trying, desperately, to avoid mentioning your age…), you’re still young (the giveaway being that you are a ‘Young Steinway Artist’!) – so how do you balance your musical commitments with the rest of your life?
That is actually a question I get a lot! So far, it hasn’t been as difficult as one might imagine. First of all, I have gone to an amazing high school, called the Professional Children’s School (PCS), which is around specifically for kids who often need to take time off school for professional reasons. PCS has made my life a lot less complicated than it could have been. Aside from my wonderful school, I try to put as much effort in the work I have for school as I can in order to keep myself motivated with non-musical. I would say I have been pretty lucky regarding balancing in my life!
– Photographs by Stephen Sullivan.