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Thomas Nickell and the Orchestra of The Swan – Kings Place

Thomas Nickell
Thomas Nickell (courtesy Stephen Sullivan)

Called ‘The Artist At Seventeen’ and subtitled ‘Bridging The Generations’, this concert had the Orchestra of the Swan treating an eclectic but nonetheless cultured audience to ‘Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, BWV 565’, (re)arranged by the late English composer Steve Martland. For the relatively uninitiated like me, whose exposure to classical music rarely ventures beyond The Last Night of the Proms or excerpts of classical works inserted into musical theatre shows, ‘BWV’ refers to Bach-Werke- Verzeichnis, the ‘Bach Works Catalogue’ of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions published in 1950 and compiled by Wolfgang Schmieder, a German musicologist. The purists and traditionalists will very likely not approve of Martland, or indeed anybody, adapting a Bach composition. It’s their loss, as the orchestra, appearing on this occasion with no brass, woodwind or percussion sections, utilise the string section in such a way that gave it room to be fully appreciated, and not drowned out by other louder instruments.

Conducted by David Curtis, the orchestra palpably enjoyed playing a varied programme, and the teenage prodigy placed at the centre of the evening’s proceedings, Thomas Nickell, more than matched the hype surrounding his skills at the piano. One of his own compositions, a sonata – a piece designed to be played, as opposed to a cantata, a piece designed to be sung – seemed a little clunky to me, and was immediately dismissed by a fellow member of the audience and his companion, both of whom said they had themselves composed more sophisticated music when they were seventeen years of age. They may possibly have been up their own behinds. But either way, it is not clear that Nickell’s sonata was composed after his most recent birthday – he could have written it a decade ago. The piece had the aura of Angry Young Man about it in the sharp, almost banging of the piano keys. It was strong, and it was thrilling.

The concert also included a Benjamin Britten composition called ‘Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge’. Taken literally, it appears Frank Bridge was not afraid of expressing the full gamut of human emotion, such were the extremities within the ‘variations’; he seemed quite a vivacious man (again, judging purely by this composition). A note in the programme makes clear that Bridge was Britten’s tutor, and nothing in the piece seemed a second longer than it needed to be.

The most interesting piece of the evening, for me, was a piano concerto by a living composer, David Matthews, who was present at the concert. Only the first of four movements was long and heavy, the others following in quick succession, a tango piece, a slower blues number and then a powerful orchestral flourish of a finale. Thomas Nickell, once more at the piano, played with a tad too much forthrightness for some traditionalists in the audience. However, it was suitable for a concert of this nature to provide its audience with a penetrating and captivating performance, and whatever was lacking in subtlety was more than made up for in a flawless and seemingly effortless execution. This is a young man who evidently enjoys what he does, and is clearly on the ascendancy. A delightful evening.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Orchestra of the Swan
Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG
Walton, Two pieces from Henry V
Britten, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
David Matthews, Piano concerto
Bach arr Martland, Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Bach, Piano concerto in D minor
Music / Saturday, 16 July 2016 – 7:30pm / Hall One


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