Saturday 28 May 2016

Thomas Nickell is performing David Matthews' Piano Concerto and his own piano sonata: I catch up with the young American pianist

Thomas Nickell - photo Stephen Sullivan
Thomas Nickell - photo Stephen Sullivan
The American pianist Thomas Nickell is only 17 years old, and already has made quite a name for himself. Both a pianist and composer, he will coming to the UK in July and will be performing David Matthew's Piano Concerto at at Stratford ArtsHouse on 10 July and at Kings Place on 16 July 2015 with the Orchestra of the Swan, as well as performing his own Sonata No. 3 in London and Stratford, and appearing with the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Curtis on 9 July. I caught up with Thomas by email to find out a bit more.

1. You are playing a David Matthews concerto in London, what attracted you to the work?
I am always interested in performing works by contemporary composers. What initially attracted me to David Matthews’ Piano Concerto was that the work is actually titled a “Piano Concerto”. This caught my attention because this implies a certain adherence to traditional forms. This is not something often found among contemporary works. Of course that does not mean that it is not an entirely original work. I was also very attracted to the harmonic writing. It is written in a harmonic style that is unlike anything I have heard before. Kind of Bartok meets Britten meets Gershwin. I also love how Matthews replaced what would typically be viewed as the scherzo or minuet movement of a four movement work with a tango, effectively incorporating a modern and eclectic dance form in the piece.

Thomas Nickell
Thomas Nickell
2. Do you find that being a composer affects your attitude to, and view of contemporary music and the works that you play?
I don’t think that my being a composer affects my attitude toward the contemporary music that I listen to or play, because it, for the most part, just provides me with new ideas and ways of viewing music that will in turn influence my own compositions.

3. What criteria do you use to choose contemporary works for performance?
I don’t suppose I have any criteria in selecting contemporary works for performance so long as they fit in alongside the other works I have selected for the programme. In general, I am interested in providing a totally new musical experience for my audience, that places the old with the new!

4. How much is your own composition influenced by the fact that you are a pianist?
Being a pianist only really influences my compositions when I compose piano music at the piano that I expect to perform myself. My Piano Sonata No. 3 didn’t quite start out that way. The piece actually began as a piece for string quartet, and slowly evolved into a piano piece, because I felt a certain longing for the piano in the themes and I thought it could have more potential as a piano work.

5. How would you describe your Piano Sonata No. 3? What would you say your influences were and what were you trying to achieve?
At the time when I composed my Piano Sonata No. 3, I was largely listening to the 20th century Russian masters, such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, so I suppose their styles made their way into my piece a bit. Aside from that, my compositions generally draw influence from all of what I hear in my daily life which may include music or any of the unpredictable liveliness of New York City. And that is really what the piece is about: unpredictability. I want the listener to be at the edge of their seat, trying to predict what could come next, while still having the feeling that the music is alive.

6. Many composers nowadays eschew from traditional forms like sonatas, yet you have chosen to keep within the tradition. Would you say your sonata is a traditional work?

I would not start a description of my sonata by saying that it is “traditional”, because it only roughly follows the typical classical definition of sonata form. I did, however, intentionally compose an exposition of several themes that would later be elaborated upon in a development, and then finally be restated in a new, varied, way in a recapitulation towards the end, which is why I titled the piece a sonata. It is, in a sense, my take on a sonata. I generally see no reason for composers to break from tradition, so long as they look at tradition in a new way, as individuals.

Thomas Nickell - photo Stephen Sullivan
Thomas Nickell - photo Stephen Sullivan
7. Your programmes in the UK are rather eclectic, would you say that this reflects your own choices of repertoire?
Yes, I certainly would say this reflects my own repertoire choices. When I put together a programme, I want the music to be as varied as possible, yet still be related in some way, either through playing music of the same time period, or maybe by composers who held a similar musical outlook, or anything I discover when studying the pieces or the composers. I want my programmes to show that all music is in some way related, however different it may seem.

8. How do you approach performing Bach on the piano in a work like the keyboard concerto?
The way I look at the whole controversy over playing works by Bach on an instrument that he didn’t have in his time is by remembering that Bach very often transcribed his own works for entirely different instruments or ensembles, so clearly he wasn’t picky about what instruments played his pieces, and all he probably cared about was that his music be played as well as possible. For example, most of Bach’s harpsichord concertos were transcribed for keyboard from earlier violin concertos, and a piece for the harpsichord may also very well end up becoming a piece for the voice. That being said, my playing of Bach is mostly influenced by Glenn Gould’s performances of Bach on the piano, and also by Karl Richter’s performances of Bach on the harpsichord.

9. Are you interested in Historically Informed Performance, and would the way you perform baroque music?
I think that the practice of Historically Informed Performance is wonderful, and I fully believe that performers should understand as clearly as possible how the music would have been played in the time that the composer composed it. I also believe that performers should view the music from a very contemporary point of view, and interpret it with a modern sensibility. In short, I believe in a hybrid of the old and the new.

10. You clearly already have a wide repertoire of piano works, what are the areas which interest you most?
Well, my area of interest is constantly changing, but at the moment, I would say my interest lies in 20th century American music. From the beginning until the end of the century, composers in America were basically doing it all. They were building upon the new methods of composition that were coming out of Europe at the time, they were also incorporation the popular forms of music, such as jazz or musical theatre, into their composition of classical art music, and some even invented entirely new ways of approaching and listening to musical composition.

11. What areas would you like to develop further? Solo recital or concerto?
I feel that there are incredible possibilities in both areas, but when one has the opportunity to work with other musicians and exchange ideas and discover what can be done when musicians of all different areas put their heads together, the results can be marvelous. So, therefore, I want to see what the concerto has in store for me.

12. If you could choose one composer as a favourite, who would it be?
Most definitely J. S. Bach.

13. Given unlimited choice and no restrictions, what work would you want to perform?
Well, if I had to pick a solo piece, I would love to perform Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, and if I could choose an orchestral piece, maybe Lukas Foss’ Piano Concerto!

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