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UCD Symphony to perform three works by three different composers
November 13, 2015 (Davis Enterprise)

The UC Davis Symphony Orchestra performs the first orchestral piece by French composer Olivier Messiaen, and the first orchestral piece by UC Davis faculty composer Sam Nichols, as well as the Third Symphony by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, during a performance at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall. All three works have three movements, giving the program further symmetry.

The concert also will feature a return by cellist David Russell, who appeared with the orchestra in 2007 for the premiere of UC Davis faculty composer Laurie San Martin’s Cello Concerto. This time, Russell will be featured in the new cello concerto by Nichols (who is, incidentally, San Martin’s spouse).

Nichols’ 18-minute concerto is titled “This Is Not a Toy for a Child,” and it features movements titled “Shadow Stitches” (referencing a sewing technique in which needlework is visible through sheer cloth); “Zip, Zap” (a title taken from a poem by William Carlos Williams);  and “Arga Warga” (the term comes from “Riddley Walker,” the award-winning futuristic novel published in 1980 by American-turned-British writer Russell Hoban, inspired by a medieval painting at Canterbury Cathedral).

Nichols told The Enterprise that his concerto requires the soloist “to do some pretty crazy things with his thumb and his ring finger. The (resulting) sound is not something you hear in cello music very often. It’s hard to describe, but unforgettable.”

Cellist David Russell has taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts since 2005; he has served as principal cello with Opera Boston. He is noted as an interpreter of contemporary music.

Nichols, who has been with the UC Davis music department since 2003, was born in the small town of Damarascotta, Maine, where he was introduced to classical music largely through broadcasts. “I became a composer because of Maine Public Radio,” he explained. “They were playing organ music by Messiaen when I was 16,” and before long, the young Nichols had settled on music as his career.

Appropriately enough, preceding the new cello concerto by Nichols will be Les Offrandes oubliées (“The Forgotten Offerings”),  a 13-minute orchestral piece composed by Messiaen in 1930 — just after Messiaen completed his studies at the Paris Conservatory. It was his first piece to be published and performed in public. Messiaen was a deeply religious man, inclined toward mysticism; this piece is is a religious triptych, depicting the cross, descent of man into sin, and the Eucharist.

The Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius dates from 1907, and is commonly regarded as one of the composer’s more optimistic works (as compared with some of the more austere symphonies that came later). Conductor Christian Baldini of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra describes this three-movement, 30-minute piece as “looking back at the classical period” of the 1800s, and Baldini added that “Although it cannot be proven, it could be suggested that the three movements in his Third Symphony correspond to the birth, funeral, and resurrection of Christ.”  Sibelius is a favorite of conductor Christian Baldini, who led a performance of the composer’s Fourth Symphony by the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento just a few weeks ago.

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