On 3 June, 19-year-old Thomas Nickell will make his debut in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall as soloist in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, accompanied by the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago under the baton of Mina Zikri. The program will also include Liszt’s Totentanz and one of Nickell’s own compositions. It should be a defining moment in the young musician’s career, but Nickell, an artist demonstrating an incredible level of artistic maturity for his age, is trying to remain level-headed about it.

Thomas Nickell © Alexander & Buono International
Thomas Nickell
© Alexander & Buono International

In a recent discussion, we talked about his background and the choices he has consciously made regarding his budding career. For example, he doesn’t believe he is well suited to jump on the piano competitions circuit. “I don't really think it’s a path for me for a few reasons. I believe it’s a fantastic way to get a kind of a jump start, a great way to meet people. But I feel it’s somewhat restrictive in the repertoire that you have to focus on, because there are judges on these competitions that insist on specific ways that they are looking at you to play. And I like to be looking every time at new things, constantly changing my approach to each piece... I like to perform pieces differently in each performance”. Nickell doesn’t believe a score is finished when the composer commits his final notes to paper – creating any piece of music is supposed to be a “dual project” between composer and performer. It is only finalized when it is performed. On one side, the interpreter must try to represent as accurately as possible the composer’s perceived intentions, also being conscious of such factors as the historical context in which the opus was written or the creator’s own life at the time. On the other side, the pianist approaches the stage with his own baggage of emotions and thoughts, with his own “mood”, hence dynamics and particular types of articulation might seriously differ from one performance to the next. At the same time, any performer can have a good or a bad night and Nickell considers that this fact should be accepted as such.

We talk about his choice of repertoire and the special affinity he has for the American music of the early 20th century – particularly the works of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and Aaron Copland – Nickell seeing this as a period when American composers began to find their own voices and their music started to gain momentum. He plays this music as often as he can in his public appearances, aiming to convince the listeners that there are values outside the well-known works of Liszt, Schumann and Chopin. At the same time, his programs are always balanced. He is not avoiding the standard repertoire. Nickell believes that there is a richness of meaning in many of these works that has been lost over time. Many current interpretations, he says, “are restraining the original intentions of the composer”. So he makes it his mission to bring new sheen to faded interpretative details, to remove all the darkened varnish layers that hide the splendor of the original musical colors.  

© Alexander & Buono International
© Alexander & Buono International

Selected to be one of the few Young Steinway Artists, Nickell is currently enrolled at the New School, Mannes College of Music in New York where he is pursuing a double major in Piano Performance and Composition. He doesn’t talk too much about his musical beginnings. He started playing the piano and also composing when he was 5 years old. Writing music has been “an integral part of his life” ever since, and for this artist who wants to be remembered more as a composer than a pianist, imagining musical landscapes is like “a sixth sense”. It’s consistently happening, whether he is improvising at the keyboard or not: it might be laid down on paper or just floating in the ether. “I would not be the same person if I couldn’t write music,” claims the young artist. I ask him about acknowledged influences and he quickly comes up with several names, all American: Cowell (many remember him for his unique way of plucking and caressing the piano strings), Bill Evans and Morton Feldman. Nickell believes in music characterized by “spacious atmosphere” and he sheepishly admits that his works “are not really virtuosic piano music”. For Nickell, the latter is “almost like a different art form in itself”. When you attend a performance of a devilishly difficult Liszt piece, there is a “visual” aspect of the rendition besides the purely auditive one – you’re there to witness an almost superhuman feat. There is always an audience for such a type of performance, but there is little doubt that Nickell doesn’t consider himself part of the virtuosi tribe. He doesn’t care too much about perfectionism. On the contrary, he considers that mistakes during a performance are “not only acceptable but also necessary”. Asked about his favorite pianists from yesterday and today, he mentions some very strong personalities: Glenn Gould (“one of the most original thinkers about piano interpretation”), Horowitz, the great Hungarian pianist György Cziffra, and – outside the classical music pantheon – Evans, Nat King Cole and little-known Turkish jazz musician Aydin Esen (the only contemporary reference).

Nickell has toured extensively throughout Europe and the United States as both a recitalist and as a soloist in orchestral works. For the last several years his career has been guided by the Alexander & Buono Foundation, an organization that is working with young classical musicians at the beginning of their career, providing them with advice from both marketing and business standpoints and encouraging them to fulfill their personal artistic vision. Nickell seems to be genuinely thankful for their work: “I can honestly say that without their help and support over the past few years, I would not be in the position I am today.”

In an interpreters’ world that seems more and more uniform – same immaculate technique, same repertory played in the same manner – the emergence of such a different kind of talent should be giving listeners a lot of hope. After a hopefully very successful debut in the Zankel Hall, the day of Thomas Nickell’s appearance on the podium of Carnegie’s main auditorium should perhaps not be too far.



This article was sponsored by Hemsing Associates.