This July, Nickell will take to King’s Place London and Stratford Arts House to perform his own composition, Sonata No. 3 in C major, along with an innovative collection of works by Bach, Britten and Liszt. Ahead of his first UK performance, The Culture Trip London talks to pianist Thomas Nickell.
When did you start playing the piano?
I started playing the piano when I was 5. My parents had bought me a Mozart CD before then and I had an instant desire to learn to play music. We had a piano in the house already so that seemed like a good place to start.
What is the creative process when you’re composing a new work?
The compositional process usually begins with some sort of improvisation on an idea that I have. That helps me to discover all the possible directions that the idea can go in, and from that point, I work on dissecting and developing the idea. Sometimes the process is more detailed and sometimes it is less. It all depends on how I envision the final structure of the piece.
What composers inspire your own work?
I think that inspiration comes from anywhere that I hear music, so it is hard to pinpoint specific composers, but Bach is always a tremendous inspiration, as well as Copland and Gershwin.
What are your fondest musical memories?
A very fond memory is that of performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Orchestra di Fiati in Ancona, Italy. Rhapsody in Blue was one of the reasons I wanted to become a musician, and performing it was an unforgettable experience. Another very fond musical memory was when I first heard Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. That recording still continues to fascinate and inspire me.
What do you classify as your greatest musical accomplishment?
To me, my greatest musical accomplishment was performing Franz Liszt’s great work for piano and orchestra, Totentanz, in Chicago in February of 2015. It is such a towering work in the repertoire and it has fascinated me for quite a while so naturally I was quite proud to perform it.
What advice would you give to young aspiring concert pianists?
If I could tell young pianists one thing, it would be to always be confident in your own ability and artistry. Nothing will get you further than staying true to your own personality and ideas.
What does the day in the life of Thomas Nickell look like?
Now that I am out of school, my average day differs a bit, but it typically consists of waking up in the late morning and grabbing a coffee at Starbucks and going right to the piano. I also like to go out on walks around Central Park on days with nice weather and I spend a lot of time with my wonderful girlfriend Fiona, who is a drummer. We do some collaborations every once in a while too.
How do you balance your musical career with other responsibilities of a seventeen-year-old (such as school life)?
Managing my time is always something I have to be conscious of. It is easy to get carried away by the music and lose track of time when practicing for hours, but there are of course other responsibilities. For me, the best way to balance everything is to keep myself motivated by putting my best work into everything, whether that is in school or in music. I also have had the fortune of attending an amazing high school, called the Professional Children’s School, that is completely geared towards helping students who have busy lives outside of school, such as musicians or actors or dancers.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a pianist?
That is a hard question to answer, because I have been playing the piano my whole life and never considered pursuing anything else as seriously. I have actually always had a passion for skiing, so maybe I could imagine myself as a skier if I weren’t a pianist.
What are the last 5 songs you’ve listened to (on your phone/iPod etc)?
1. Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety (Symphony no. 2)
2. Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
3. Henry Cowell’s Symphony no. 15
4. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata
5. Sibelius’ Symphony no. 7
What are you most looking forward to seeing in London?
I have always loved the way that the Tower Bridge looks, so I would love to get a chance to visit that in person, and aside from that I hope I get a chance to just walk around a bit to take the city in as a pedestrian. I feel that is the best way to experience a new place.
You’ve had incredible success at such a young age; what are your hopes for the future?
In the future I hope to continue playing and composing music, and discovering new things in the process. I am excited to see what the future has in store!
Thomas will be making his London premiere on 16 July 2016 at 7.30PM at Kings Place, as a part of his UK performances.
Interview conducted by Gina Chahal