19-year old Young Steinway Artist Thomas Nickell made his Chicago debut with a trio of performances throughout the city, April 13-15, 2018, accompanied by the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago (OSC) under Maestro Mina Zikri. On April 13th Nickell presented both solo and orchestral works at an open rehearsal at Jones College Prep High School, 700 S. State St., Chicago. Mark Kelly, Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), opened the program, introducing 2018 as “The Year of Creative Youth”, and telling the audience that “being an engaged audience member is a creative act”.
The event was an intriguing performance in its own right, as well as a warm-up for a concert the following day at the Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. central Park Ave., Chicago, as part of its acclaimed Music Under Glass series. Saturday’s program included Franz Liszt’sinnovative symphonic work Totentanz,S. 126, 1849, for solo piano and orchestra as well the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s beloved Eroica Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, 1803), 2 unusual pieces by radical American composer Henry Cowell, and Nickell’s own composition, Étude Ostinato, 2016.
This reviewer had the opportunity to attend the rehearsal, hear and see Nickell play the Cowell pieces as well as a set of piano exercises, (Sechs kleine Klavierstucke, Op. 19, 1913), by Arnold Schoenberg, and observe Nickell and the OSC perform a work of Beethoven. I then interviewed Nickell about the choices for Music Under Glass; his remarks are consolidated and paraphrased below.
Cowell’s short piano piece The Tides of Manaunaun, 1917, is usually referred to as a “Prelude” or “Introduction”; Cowell himself has noted that it represents the legendary Irish god of motion whose forces caused waves in bodies of water to flow. In the piece itself, waves are depicted by large, sweeping tone clusters that were ingeniously played by Nickell using his left forearm on the keyboard. At the same time, the piece’s folk-like melody, mostly composed of octaves, was delicately played by Nickell’s right hand. The results were intriguing and very impressive.
The second Cowell piece, Aeolian Harp, 1923, was played by Nickell strumming the internal strings of the Steinway Grand with his left hand, while controlling the chords played by (silently) pressing down the necessary keys with his right hand; at the same time he controlled the duration of the chords with the pedals! The complicated instructions for how to play this piece are, of course, provided by Cowell in addition to the score. The resulting sounds were unusually soft and compelling, in truth, harp-like. Nickell advised the audience at Jones that it is in the 2 pieces by Cowell that these unusual piano techniques were first used.
The Schoenberg set revealed six compact works, “continuously developmental”, very different. In talking to the youthful audience during the Q and A section after the concert, Nickell described the music as “ free-tonal, not in any key”.
Nickell has a light and delicate touch; his whole persona is concentrated, it appears, in listening to the work and drawing it out of the instrument. He is restrained and transparently-deceptively- simple in technique, a virtuoso seemingly without ego.
Totentanz is regarded as “a diabolical concerto for piano and orchestra, filled with dark, dramatic energies.” Liszt’s Totentanz is possibly my favorite work of the whole 19th century and I’m excited to perform it with Oistrakh,” said Nickell. “The whole program (at Garfield Park) will take listeners on a wild ride and I can’t wait to bring each piece to life for Chicago.” I asked the enthusiastic, quietly expressive and very polite young performer to elaborate. He spoke of Liszt’s fascination with death and hell and noted, “The title means ‘Dance of the Dead’, and was inspired by a painting called ‘The Triumph of Death’. The piece is a symphonic poem; it consists of many variations on the ‘Das irie’ theme, which originally came from The Mass for the Dead”. Nickell went on to describe these extended, polished and unusual variations, with “a highly colorful percussive piano portion and also some lighter and truly beautiful passages” and mentioned the “Medieval counterpoint” contained within the score.
Nickell’s “whirlwind weekend” in Chicago concluded with an intimate performance for invited guests at the Woman’s Athletic Club of Chicago, 626 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, on Sunday afternoon, April 15. Nickell’s Chicago performances are part of his Spring 2018 tour that includes his Boston concert debut and culminates in a debut for both Nickell and OSC in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hallin June 2018.
Founded in 2005 by conductor and violinist Mina Zikri, Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago (OSC) is Chicago’s fastest growing symphony orchestra for young musicians. The first movement of the Beethoven piece I heard at Jones, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, 1795, revealed a conductor in deft, full control of a mature orchestra. The allegro con brio was presented with a deal of elegance and charm, the orchestra first and Nickell after fulfilling the double exposition and moving under the deft baton of Zikri through the development and recapitulation. There was no sense of this being a rehearsal- the piece was lyrically beautiful.
“We are especially proud our mentorship program can include an up-and-coming soloist such as Thomas, providing an immeasurable performance experience for OSC musicians and allowing Thomas to grow as a performer through our continued engagement,” said Zikri. In answer to the questions of the student audience at Jones, Zikri warmly congratulated Nickell on his unceasing desire to learn. The audience itself, voluntarily present on a day when school was officially closed, no doubt took this observation to heart.
All photos courtesy of Thomas Nickell