Week in classical music: Alexander Bishop, Michael Nicolella, and Monteverdi

Stephen Stubbs. Photo courtesy Pacific Musicworks.

It’s been a busy week for Cornish College, the college’s faculty, and one of the school’s talented soon to be graduates. A new president was unveiled — a violist — Nancy Uscher. That evening student composer Alexander Bishop’s music for viola was the focus at Poncho Hall. Toward the end of the week — innovative guitarist and Cornish faculty member Michael Nicolella took to the Nordstrom Recital Hall stage as part of the Seattle Classical Guitar Series. Up the hill at St. James Cathedral, Steven Stubbs (who has been tasked with building an early music program at Cornish) led the first historically accurate performance of Monteverdi’s path blazing 1610 Vespers.

Alexander Bishop was composing for short pieces for the viola before he met Mara Gearman but Mara Gearman, a violist with the SSO and Cornish faculty member, stretched his talents further by asking him to write more music for Seattle’s new music festival May Day, May Day earlier this year and for the all Bishop recital on December 1st. As a result of their collaboration, Gearman debuted a new viola sonata by the composer, the St. Helens Quartet new music for string quartet. Bishop is an unquestionably talented composer. He writes fast and what he’s written to date (that I’ve heard) combines numerous influences — minimalism, popular music, Erik Satie, Debussy, and others — in ways that never sounded derived, haphazard, or directionless. In fact, across an entire recital of Bishop’s music, his voice is remarkably uniform.

Since Mara Gearman was the reason for so much of the music on the program it is understandable that she should be a featured musician along with the St. Helens Quartet, an ensemble she collaborates with often. In his String Quartet No. 3, Bishop saved the most poetic moments for the viola. Gearman’s exclamatory lyricism contrasted with the raspy stasis of the other instruments during the piece’s first movement — Dreambirds. The second movement showcased Bishop’s knack for fusing disparate styles. Over a period of minutes, Bishop’s piece glided effortlessly from Satie’s languidness to Debussy and Ravel inspired colorations, connected through out by American minimalism. But the frenetic final movement, deceptively titled Nocturne, demanded the most from the musicians.

Bishop’s musical palette is generally muted. His colors are gray — melancholic, yearning, and nostalgic. His melodies linger in the mind long after they have been played with remarkable stickiness. All of these traits emerged in the final piece of the night: Bishop’s Sonata for Viola and Piano. The first two movements exhibit feelings of longing serenity, and perhaps even personal loss. But the last movement sheds these feelings for high-strung urgency. The piece brought out the best in Bishop and his musical partner Gearman.

This past Saturday it was Michael Nicolella’s turn. Nicolella is regarded as one of the most versatile and inventive classical guitarists playing today, versed in the standard repertory of the instrument. Nicolella isn’t just a performer, but he is also a composer writing original pieces and arranging familiar pieces for his instrument. He brought both aspects to bear during his recital which was part of the Seattle Classical Guitar Society’s International Series.

Nicolella as composer and innovator opened and closed his program. He began with his own Prelude, an improvisatory, airy piece with references to pop music, that he wrote this year. At the other end of the program was his arrangement of Jimmy Hendrix’s Little Wing arranged for electric guitar. Hendrix’s idiom was shaped with care and details vividly exposed by Nicolella’s performance. Nicolella performed this same arrangement at May Day, May Day. Then, Town Hall’s acoustics muddied the guitar’s sound. His Nordstrom performance was a much different experience. The sharper acoustics of the recital hall helped Nicolella emphasize the classical elements of his arrangement.

Other works on the program veered toward the traditional. Albeniz’s Torre Bermeja, Cordoba, and Sevilla — three musical pictures taken from the composer’s Twelve Characteristic Pieces — closed out the formal part of the program. Nicolella expressed the essence of each place by vividly recreating the sights and sounds as well as each place’s atmosphere. The best example of this was Cordoba in which the holy mystery of the city’s mosque was surrounded by urban dissonance.

Nicolella closed the first half with an impressively rendered performance of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Capriccio Diabolico (Homage to Paganini). The piece pays tribute to Paganini with devilishly complicated passages that recall Paganini’s reputation as a virtuoso of unthinkable skill and the belief among some that he had to be in league with the devil. Nicolella must have channeled Paganini before his performance because he singed the air with his playing as he made each difficult passage sound effortless. The audience responded with utter attention and generous applause.

Michael Nicolella’s recital kept me from hearing Stephen Stubbs’ period performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers and a nasty head cold prevented a Gathering Note reviewer from sharing the experience with readers. George Shangrow and Orchestra Seattle gave a moving but subjective non-period performance of the Vespers a few years ago. By all accounts Stubbs’ version of the Vespers was just as good if not better. Bernard Jacobsen raved in the Seattle Times, “this was an utterly thrilling Vespers, of a quality you are unlikely ever to encounter anywhere else in the world.” Stubbs’ early music scholarship and musicianship are peerless but just as important is his ability to build a program or an organization from the ground up like he has done with Pacific Musicworks. Stubbs is irreplaceable. In time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cornish’s early music program become a model for other college and universities.

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