Nicholas Finch, the principal cellist of the Louisville Orchestra, appears in concert Thursday, April 18, at the IU Southeast Ogle Center performing three new cello concertos by three prominent American composers — each written for Finch to premiere.
That’s quite a thing. It’s certainly a longtime tradition for classical music composers to write works with favored performers in mind. But three almost at once?
“It was a perfect storm of circumstance for me, and I knew lightning might not strike twice,” says Finch. “But I’ve been lucky. At every step that I needed help, or needed a partner, I was able to get one.”
And so, with one interested person leading to help from the next, Nick Finch’s cello concerto concert will be presented by Music Makes a City productions, financed by Louisville music patrons, with a professional orchestra put together by the NouLou Chamber Players, the stage provided by IUS at its excellent acoustics Stem Concert Hall, with Jason Seber, assistant conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, formerly with the Louisville Orchestra and Youth Performing Arts School here, flying in to conduct — plus the composers, themselves, in town for rehearsals and the performance on Thursday.
All a good showing for the city, says Finch, a native New Yorker who came to the Louisville Orchestra as an interim principal for the cello section and was named principal cellist by Music Director Teddy Abrams in 2013.
Finch calls it “a sort of a testament to Louisville’s tradition of doing things like this, going way back with the Louisville Orchestra,” he explains. “It reminds me a little bit — I was watching a documentary about Muhammad Ali. I didn’t know anything about how he has this circle of benefactors, and many of the same names in the circle that support the arts and the orchestra.”
But Finch does his part, as well. He’s one of many youthful performers in the symphony who maintain a wide web in the musical world: the up-and-coming performers and the new American composers. That’s a different set, Finch believes, than the contemporary composers of a few decades ago who seemed to drive more fans from the concert halls than they brought in.
Finch thinks a younger generation of composers has learned from experimental techniques, but weren’t bound by them.
“The thing about this concert that I think is great,” he says, “is every piece is very satisfying. Every piece is modern, but the composers don’t lose touch with what makes it an enjoyable experience for an audience.”
Maybe you could put the phone down for a moment
The cellist’s rundown of the three concertos offers three distinct directions in which the three composers are heading …
Beginning with Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, who Finch first met while performing Zhurbin’s music with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
Finch says Lev Zhurbin’s piece is full of humor.
“Humor was used more often by classical composers,” says Finch. “For some reason in modern music, the stereotype became somehow that it’s all got to be incredibly serious and dark. Lev sort of brings back that playful spirit — but still at an incredibly high level of craftsmanship.”
Finch says the concerto finds humor in obsessive use of social media.
“Lev was viewing New Yorkers in the subway clicking through their phones, and said, ‘What sort of musical experience reflects that?’” says Finch. “That was the starting point of the concerto, because it’s one of the things people are talking a lot about on social media and in the press these days — how serious some of the effects may be.”
The cellist laughs — because it may be him they’re talking about.
“Just to give you an idea, the concerto ends with this very, very funny music — funny and brilliant — where first I play this very difficult cadenza, and then for the last movement, I hold a single note. The orchestra does this beautiful thing around the single note. I’m just playing the single note, and I’m reacting.”
Finch thinks he gets the composer’s message.
“Lev is saying the saying the protagonist has said everything they wish to say, and now is ready to listen and reflect,” explains Finch. “There’s this idea that on social media, we’re constantly throwing two-second things at each other and constantly trying to get attention. Lev’s idea is that at some point, we should sit back and talk less and listen more.”
Colors you didn’t know existed
The mood changes entirely as Finch moves to composer Alyssa Weinberg.
“Alyssa typically likes to work with different types of texture,” says Finch, who met Weinberg when the Louisville Orchestra performed one of her compositions. “For example, one of the other pieces that I heard of hers was for percussion.
“She’d have the percussionists on a single note, and she would do everything she could to color that single note in every way possible. She’d have someone banging vibes with a mallet. Then she would be bowing the note on another vibe with a bow on the side. So she’s really into texture and color.
“This piece,” he says, “reflects the colors of the instruments in all kinds of very unusual ways, like creating a painting with colors that you didn’t even know existed. It’s a very atmospheric piece, and it’s one of these things that use all kinds of techniques where you scratch, you use too much bow pressure. But the effect is quite beautiful and quite tonal.”
Written to their memory
The third cello composition is by Dorian Wallace, with whom Finch carries on a running online discussion of the world.
“There was this human rights story that came up that wasn’t followed in the mainstream press,” says Finch. “It was about the country of Bangladesh, and there were some writers there, some secular writers, who were advocating for things that in America we really just take for granted. You know, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. They were murdered by religious extremists. Bangladesh has had a problem where a lot of free thinkers were being murdered by this small group of Al Qaeda.
“The story got almost no traction here, but it really moved Dorian in a personal way. So this piece is written to their memory,” says Finch. “This is the really serious piece on the program. It’s in five movements because it reflects the five stages of grief.”
Finch says Wallace draws on rhythms and musical styles of Bangladesh.
“The last movement combines a bunch of musical styles all at once — both modern and much older,” says Finch. “In Dorian’s own words, a combination of Olivier Messiaen and John Lennon. The orchestra only plays two chords, but it’s really satisfying writing, and it’s unbelievably beautiful.”
A lot of ground for one cellist to cover.
“I just hope it runs the gamut of emotions,” says Finch. “We’ve got one piece that is really funny and exciting. We’ve got one piece that’s incredibly atmospheric and moodful. And we have one piece that’s incredibly somber. I really think it’s going to run the gamut of a lot of different emotions.”
The free concert starts at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, in the Ogle Center theater, located on the on the north side of the IUS campus.