Friday, May 13, 2016

Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas

In Part 1 I wrote about Laura Metcalf's excellent First Day, one of two debut albums by cellists being released by Sono Luminus this spring. First Day is a truly lovely album, which introduced me to several unfamiliar pieces that quickly became old friends. The other album is Transitions by Michael Nicolas, and it is a horse (more like a bucking bronco, actually) of a very different, but no less compelling color. Plain truth: it's a wild ride and one that may not be for everyone - but I can't get enough.

Nicolas landed in my inbox a while ago as the new cellist for Brooklyn Rider, their first new member since they began a decade ago. That alone speaks to his technical skill and spirit of adventure, as does his membership in the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). However, Transitions, which explores the "intersection between technology and humanity," firmly establishes Nicolas as a commanding musician in his own right.

The album opens with a bang: Mario Davidovsky's Synchronism No. 3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds. Written in 1963, this is the oldest piece on the album and a fantastic introduction to what is to come. First off, the sound is extraordinary. I feel like I'm inside the cello, surrounded by the lapidary synthesized sound of the electronics. The playing feels completely natural, musical and involving, with the electronic sounds fully integrated in a way that I haven't heard before. This may be the definitive recording of this piece and I'm glad Davidovsky, who was born in 1934, is still around to hear it.

Nicolas next stakes his claim on Minimalism with Steve Reich's Cello Counterpoint, which required him to record eight different cello parts. It's a fairly late Reich piece, from 2003, and Nicolas plays it with more of a dynamic sweep than the other recordings I've heard. I won't go so far as to say he romanticizes it, but it does feel somehow more emotionally resonant. 

That's it for the classic pieces, though. Next up is a world premiere of David Fulmer's Speak of the Spring, which takes its title from Shakespeare's Sonnet 53 ("What is your substance, whereof are you made...") Aside from some possible double-tracking, I can't otherwise hear the addition of any technology in this work. There is both delicacy and strength to the way the piece unfurls, like fine vines intertwining, and aside from a rhythmic explosion around two thirds into the eight minute piece, the mood is mainly contemplative.

You won't stay in that mood for long after Annie Gosfield's Four Roses starts up. This slamming "duo" for cello and synthesizer was written in 1997 and has some of the dark heaviness of Mario Diaz de Leon's music. It flows seamlessly into a world premiere of ...And A Five Spot, also by Gosfield and composed recently for Nicolas. In both pieces, the cello and electronics are sometimes together and sometimes at odds, creating a fascinating energy that is very distinctive. These two works combined have me very curious about Gosfield - it looks like I have a bit of catching up to do!

The penultimate track is Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Transitions, a solo cello piece Nicolas also recorded for the ICE album In The Light Of Air, which was on my Top 20 for 2015. There's nothing radically different about this new recording except for the context, which makes you realize that the cello itself is "technology," like any instrument aside from the human voice. Nicolas' virtuosity makes the cello an extension of himself, making him the ideal guide by which to experience this fundamentally mysterious music.

The electronics are back, in a big way, on flexura, another world premiere, written for Nicolas by Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa. This is properly a duet between the composer and the performer. While Nicolas is playing the cello, La Rosa plays an instrument he invented called a MANO, which is like a touch panel he uses to manipulate sound, including sampled cello notes. Confused? Check out this video of them performing flexura at NYU in 2015. Whatever is going on, the music is very exciting - simultaneously spooky and light, with a sense of play throughout. La Rosa is definitely one to watch. This is very bold stuff and a stunning way to end Transitions. Michael Nicolas has truly arrived. Bravo!

Transitions will be released on May 27th but you can get a sneak preview when Nicolas performs four of the pieces, including the Gosfield and La Rosa works with the composers on hand, in a free concert at Columbia's Miller Theater on May 16th. I don't know about you, but I'm going to try to get there.

You may also enjoy:
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras

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