Thomas Nickell, Piano, and The Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis, Conductor, in an Original Program of Mozart, Messiaen, Nickell, Cowell, Britten, David Matthews, and Wagner/Liszt

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Thomas Nickell, Pianist

Thomas Nickell, Pianist

Sunday, February 26, 2017, 1:30 PM
Weill Recital Hall

Thomas Nickell, Piano
The Orchestra of the Swan
David Curtis, Conductor

Mozart – Piano Concerto in No. 12 in A major, K. 414 (385p)
Messiaen – Preludes for Piano (1928-9), Nos. 1-4

1. La colombe
2. Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste
3. Le nombre léger
4. Instants défunts,

Thomas Nickell – Sympathy
Cowell – The Tides of Manaunaun
Britten – Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Op. 10

Introduction and Theme
Variation 1: Adagio
Variation 2: March
Variation 3: Romance
Variation 4: Aria Italiana
Variation 5: Bourrée classique
Variation 6: Wiener Waltzer
Variation 7: Moto perpetuo
Variation 8: Funeral March
Variation 9: Chant
Variation 10: Fugue and Finale

David Matthews – Piano Concerto, Op. 111 (US Premiere)
Wagner-Liszt – Liebestod

At 18, Thomas Nickell, even in a world populated by numerous prodigies who began to play in public at very young ages, still deserves to be considered a young, emerging artist, and this concert showed him to be a notably mature and tasteful one.  He is currently a student at the New School, Mannes College of Music, studying piano and composition, both with equal seriousness. He has already played programs in concert and with orchestra in the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, and Chicago, and has been honored as a Steinway artist and is represented by Alexander & Buono International. The concert, a repeat of his London debut, gave the full house something else to be grateful for: a visit from an outstanding British chamber orchestra—in this instance all strings—The Orchestra of the Swan, based in Stratford-upon-Avon, under the direction of its founder and music director, David Curtis, who is as enterprising and personable as he is musical. (Look for our upcoming interview with him soon.) He founded the orchestra twenty-one years ago. Today they play regularly in the major urban centers of the Midlands, notably Town Hall Birmingham, as well as London, and they tour internationally. As well as Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms, they specialize in the twentieth century British classics for chamber orchestra, especially strings, and in newly commissioned works by living British composers. The major work on the present program was in fact quite a recent work, David Matthews’ Piano Concerto, Op. 111 of 2010.

The opening piece on the program, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in No. 12 in A major, K. 414 (385p), with the composer’s characteristic clarity and simple textures at their purest, is an excellent way to get to know a pianist. Mr. Nickell played the work with the finely articulated passagework and crystalline tone that has become a sort of lingua franca in Mozart playing on modern instruments. There are other ways, but this works well, and Nickell was able to use it to give us a winning and persuasive performance. The interplay of soloist and orchestra in the first movement cadenza was especially effective, putting them into a true dialogue of equals. Tempi were nicely judged throughout. David Curtis and The Orchestra of the Swan provided more than mere support, rather a robust, energetic presence with a broad palette of bright and dark string timbres. Mr. Curtis is a violist, and it shows in his keen ear for the middle and lower registers.

Having won us over with this Mozart, Nickell proceeded to amaze us with Olivier Messiaen’s exquisite early preludes for piano, still evocative of works Debussy was writing fifteen years earlier, but imbued with a fiery mysticism that is Messiaen’s own. Nickell’s beautiful tone in the higher registers served the composer’s moods and atmosphere well, and he avoided over-pedaling. He most definitely had his own concept of these pieces, and his freedom from the more obvious clichés was impressive.

Nickell’s individual predilections came to the fore in two more solo pieces, his own Sympathy and Henry Cowell’s The Tides of Manaunaun, both of which explored the effect of massive clusters of dissonant notes in the bass. Mr. Nickell clearly loves this particular approach to the many sonorities of the piano. His own work was a meditation of ambitious emotional and coloristic range—a highly personal and intimate expression of human experience, the very opposite of the sort of exercise one might expect from a young composer. The Tides of Manaunaun is the best known of Cowell’s early tone cluster music. It was publicly premiered in 1917 as the prelude to a performance of The Building of Banba, a pageant or opera based on poems by the Irish theosophist, John Osborne Varian. (Cowell later claimed to have written the piece five years earlier, in 1912.) Varian was the leader of a theosophical community in Halcyon, California. The young Cowell found in Varian an inspiration for, among various things, his interest in Irish mythology, and he attached himself to him and to his community. Manaunaun is indeed the ancient Irish god of the waves of the sea and of motion itself. Later, Cowell performed the work together with other short piano pieces based on Irish mythology.

David Curtis conducting The Orchestra of the Swan.

David Curtis conducting The Orchestra of the Swan.

After the break, Mr. Curtis led The Orchestra of the Swan on its own in a splendid performance of Benjamin Britten’s brilliant Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Written in a very short period of time for a performance by the Boyd Neel Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival in 1937, the twenty-four-year-old Britten created one of the classics of British writing for string orchestra, a quintessentially British kind of ensemble. The range of sonorities he created this basically homogeneous group of instruments is as astonishing as the range of musical forms he included in the variations. The recording by the late Sir Neville Marriner and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was once…perhaps more a standard than a favorite of mine. I can only access that long-gone lp in my memory, but this performance, aside from the advantage of being live, made that seem in retrospect rather bland. The concentration and solidarity of ensemble of The Orchestra of the Swan are truly outstanding, and their enthusiasm and commitment—all the way to the desks at the back—is just what this music needs to rise to its full stature. Every bar was energized, but with a flexible sense of when to let the pulse relax.

In this, as in David Matthews’ colorful Piano Concerto, one could get the full measure of The Orchestra of the Swan, and it is impressive indeed. I’m happy to report that they and their ebullient but highly disciplined conductor plan to return to Carnegie Hall, more precisely the larger Zankel Hall, in about eighteen months’ time, and New York audiences can look forward to getting to know this exemplary group better.

Matthews’ concerto sat very well with the Britten. A sophisticated but thoroughly accessible, tuneful work, it is written with the same variety and color in mind, drawing on dance forms, like the Britten. The composer calls for a Mozartian agility and lightness from the piano against a twentieth-century string palette. If by this I imply that Mr. Matthews’ work lives in the past, I do not at all intend this to its detriment. These elements take on an immediacy of their own in the context of 2010, when it was premiered, and easily win us over into the pleasures of its nostalgic world. As entertaining and casual as it seems, it is carefully crafted, with seemingly, like the Mozart, not a note out of place. Mr. Matthews’ who was in the audience for the American premiere of his work, seemed to be delighted with the performance and the audience’s response.

This generous program closed with Liszt’s arrangement for piano of the Liebestod from his son-in-law’s Tristan und Isolde—an interesting selection, given its resonance with the Cowell, Thomas Nickell’s own work, and Matthews’ extroverted concerto. The intelligence and originality of the programming was as stimulating as the music-making.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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