For many young musicians, attaining a position in a major orchestra is a wonderful dream. Not so for Winnipeg-born cellist Michael Nicolas. From 2008-2010, he held a tenured position as associate principal cello with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
"It was a great job and I had many friends," the 29-year-old Nicolas said from his home in New York City. "I made the uncommon decision to move back to New York and be a freelance musician."
The Juilliard School graduate left the comfort and security of a full-time job to pursue his love of chamber music. He will be performing with violinist Caroline Chéhadé and pianist Marie-Hélène Trempe this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as part of the Chéhadé - Nicolas - Trempe Piano Trio in the final concert of the season of the Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg.
"We'd rather be known as individuals, than as a group," he said. "We are all freelance. We aren't a full-time group."
The three met in Montreal, and were put together in early 2010 by Jeunesses Musicales for their Concerts Desjardins, which support the career development of the finest young Canadian professional instrumentalists and singers. They toured Eastern Canada, visiting 15 cities. The trio will bring one of its successful programs to the stage Sunday and it is certainly a change from standard classical fare. A bit of jazz, some tangos and café music are all planned.
"We wanted to create a fun program of music inspired by not classical music," he said. "At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, composers began to look at popular forms to influence their music. This is well-crafted music."
The program includes selections by tango king Astor Piazzolla, a trio by Turina that draws on Andalusian and flamenco themes, Suite for Jazz Orchestra by Shostakovich and Café Music by pianist Paul Schoenfield.
"Schoenfield decided to write a piece that could be played in a café or on a concert stage," said Nicolas. "It's got a little blues, some ragtime and some Broadway musical to it."
Nicolas enjoys playing a variety of music. "I play across-the-board type of music," he said. "My mantra when I make my own program choices is to put in something a little wild." This helps explain what some might consider a risky career decision. "The MSO is a world-class, amazing orchestra," he said. "But the orchestra lifestyle didn't suit my personality. Everything is taken care of. You play in the same city in the same place and it's full time. I wanted to cobble together my own career."
It seems to be working out for this plucky young man. He plays with the International Contemporary Ensemble and "plays all over, all the time." He concedes that he has taken a big pay cut. "But I didn't need that much money to begin with. I don't have expensive tastes; I'm an ordinary guy -- I'm just from Winnipeg." He evidently loves New York. "I love the vitality of the people here, the diversity, the colourfulness. Some people might say it's dirty and noisy but I think it adds to the charm."
In 2010, Nicolas placed first in the Women's Musical Club's biennial McLellan Competition, playing a solo concerto with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and taking home a $10,000 cash prize. "It was an amazing opportunity to play with the WSO," he said.
Nicolas began his musical training in Winnipeg as a Suzuki student with Adeline Muller, then studied with the late Julie Banton and former WSO principal cellist Arkadiusz Tesarczyk before heading to Juilliard in New York City. He hasn't forgotten his roots and looks forward to playing in his hometown. "I love it," he said. "All the familiar faces of people who supported me. It's like batting for the hometown crowd, like playing for friends."
Tickets are $25 and are available at McNally Robinson Booksellers or at the door. Student tickets are $5, available at the door only.
Music Monday, an annual event celebrated on the first Monday in May, brings together thousands of students, musicians, parents and community members across the country on the same day at the same time to celebrate the gift of music.
The Winnipeg Wind Ensemble is doing its part by giving a special concert at Jubilee Place on Monday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. It features wonderful former WSO principal bassoonist Vincent Ellin performing the Winnipeg premiere of Dutch composer Jurriaan Andriessen's Concertino for Bassoon and Double Wind Quintet. "It's quasi-jazz and sounds a lot like Stravinsky," said Ellin of the work. "Andriessen was also influenced by Copland."
There will also be selections from Copland's Appalachian Spring in the program as well as some Bernstein, Respighi and Percy Grainger. What a perfect way to celebrate Music Monday!
Tickets are: $10 adults, $5 students available at the door.