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Review: Thomas Nickell and Oistrakh Symphony Wowed on a Wintry Saturday

Thomas Nickell and the Oistrakh Symphony at Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

It was an abysmal day to have to go outside this past Saturday, when we headed to Music Under Glass at the Garfield Park Conservatory. The “wintry mix” was far less cheerful than it sounds; coupled with a stiff, freezing wind, any time spent in transit was intolerable. Imagine our delight when we walked in to the glass-ceilinged delights of the Garfield Park Conservatory to hear 19-year-old piano superstar Thomas Nickell play alongside Chicago’s own Oistrakh Symphony, under the careful, masterful direction of Mina Zikri. 

The brief but wonderful concert was part of a triad of such shows around Chicago this past weekend, each with a different venue and purpose. The first, on Friday, was a lecture recital at the Jones College Prep High School, and its audience included both elementary and high school aged students. This format allowed students to take in the work of this Young Steinway artist and the Oistrak Symphony, which is made up of young professionals and recent college graduates performing at a high level of excellence. The students asked questions about the pieces, the players’ careers and how the students themselves can reach these heights.

Our time at Garfield was all about ambiance, with the crystalline glass ceilings, bright green foliage and mosaic tiled fountains creating an amazing backdrop for equally gorgeous music–as well as a fine contrast on this wintry spring day. On Sunday, the group would continue on to the Women’s Athletic Club, where Nickell performed solo works, including his own original compositions, in a downstairs room of the Victorian venue. He would then join Oistrakh Symphony to complete the performance in the grand ballroom. 

Thomas Nickell at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Mina Zikri conducts the Oistrakh Symphony. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

There’s been much said about Thomas Nickell’s work ethic, passion and expressive abilities. One of Nickell’s goals, it seems, is to rise above rote repertoire pieces and recover the subtleties and nuances of the piece to become the “speaker” for the composer, rather than a skilled technician. It’s an admirable goal, and Nickell’s efforts in this arena have certainly set him apart. Nickell has already traveled the world, had his original compositions on an international stage, and appeared thirteen separate times at Carnegie Hall. After this weekend’s trio of performances, he’ll be headed there again, bringing the Oistrak Symphony along with him for their debut at the famed concert hall. 

The concert at Garfield Park Conservatory was shorter than we’d expected and included some bits which were challenging to the ear, but overall, it was a beautiful breath of fresh air nevertheless. Nickell began the afternoon with a piece called The Tides of Manaunaun by Henry Cowell. This piece, dating back to 1917, heavily employs the use of tone clusters—chords characterized by using at least 3 tones which are adjacent to each other on a scale. The resulting sounds are often described as “crunchy” or even dissonant, in some cases, but this practice has recently come back into style, especially in the music of choral and ensemble composer, conductor and speaker Eric Whitacre, who is known for the use of such clusters in his compositions. 

It was a fitting introduction to the young artist, showcasing both his technical skill and his ability to emote through it in such a way that pieces like this, which do challenge an audience, are more easily understood. Thomas was able to elevate this piece by clearly defining a mood for it that provided a framework for the less traditional tonal structure. From there, Nickell moved into one of his own original pieces, Etude Ostinato, which served as a fitting companion to the opener. It’s clear through his own compositions that he’s aiming to find something else, and yet again, we found that we could more easily digest the work thanks to his dedication to expression. 

Oistrakh Symphony with Thomas Nickell at Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

For the next piece the Oistrakh Symphony took the stage. Founded in 2005 by Mina Zikri, a masterful conductor with a world-class resume, this group is in every way ready for its Carnegie Hall debut. From the initial downbeat of their first chords, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, you could feel the cohesion. This piece, which is considered one of Beethoven’s most revolutionary and complex, just sang under conductor Zikri’s careful hand. 

The final piece of the day was Totentanz, S.126, by Franz Liszt. Also known as the “Dance of Death.” It took 11 years for Liszt to complete, and it is incredibly demanding of performers, as well. This was handled expertly, though, and the piece was full of fire and life—quieting down here and there only to explode again and fill the conservatory space with its macabre tone.  

Though the concert seemed short, perhaps it was only because we wanted more from these incredibly talented musicians. Both Nickell and the Oistrakh are perfectly paired here, and it was easy to see why they were headed straight to Carnegie Hall after this outing.

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