Living a love for music

Alex Nichol, freelance bass player with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, says music concerts can be a transcendent experience.

Lifelong symphony musician Alex Nichol with his beloved bass

By Kate Robertson/Contributor

It was an experience, a communion, for orchestral bass player Alex Nichol between audience and orchestra

“We were playing Britten’s Les Illuminations with tenor Robert Tear, and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.  The golden light of a summer’s evening shone through the stained glass windows,” Nicholl recalled of his final concert with the Hallé Orchestra in the historic Ely Cathedral, located in London, England, which dates back in history to 1083.

“The spaciousness, grandeur, and other-worldliness of the cathedral’s vaulted interior accentuated those same qualities in the music.

“It was a communion between audience and orchestra and venue.”

For Nichol, currently the principal bass player for the Symphony of the Kootenays and a freelance musician with Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, his musical journey hasn’t been a linear one.

At 11 years of age, he started with the piano.

But the desire for a more social and transportable instrument fueled his desire for change.

At the age of 15, when a family friend who was on the board of the Calgary Junior Symphony said that the orchestra needed a bass player, Nichol rented a bass for $15 for the year from the Calgary school board and never looked back.

By December 1961, he was rehearsing and performing as part of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (NYOC).

During his years with the NYOC, Nichol was coached by some of the best double bass instructors in North America, one being Frederick Zimmermann,  the New York Philharmonic Orchestra assistant principal bass and an instructor at Juilliard School of Music.

“I learned orchestral discipline, which required that you check your ego at the stage door, while encouraging you not to forget to collect it when you left the hall,” Nichol recalled.

“I also learned to respect hierarchy and boundaries in the interest of harmony and unity of purpose within a group of 100 musicians.”

Although the NYOC is a training ground for professional musicians, Nichol never aspired to be a professional musician, rather a history professor.

But as he was attending the University of Calgary for his history degree, he also played with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

He moved to Vancouver in the fall of 1967 to pursue his masters in history, but by January 1968 he had successfully auditioned for and joined the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

With his masters completed two years later, Nicholl said he was itching to travel.

“So I resigned from VSO, sold my bass and flew to the United Kingdom, where I hoped to find a really fine bass and land a job in an orchestra.”

He bought a bass,  which he describes as a wonderful Italian instrument made by the Cavallini family of Cremona.

“I instantly fell in love with the rich, powerful tone of this bass. It has now been my constant musical companion for almost 45 years.”

Nichol landed a job with Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England, but after 18 months he found himself homesick and moved back to Vancouver where he rejoined the VSO.

He also rekindled a relationship with a woman he had previously met, Kathleen Sturgess, and she became his wife.

And so it went until Nichol returned to England with Kathleen in 1979 to study with a highly respected bass teacher at the Guildhall School of Music in London, Thomas Martin.

“In addition to a weekly lesson and the private practising required to prepare for the lesson, I had time to take a wine appreciation course.

“I had been bitten by the wine bug and thoughts of being a wine merchant or a vintner vied for supremacy during sporadic career change hot flushes.”

The decision was made for him in 1988 when the VSO board declared insolvency for eight months and the players were out of work.

“For my wife and I, the crisis was the final nudge that sent us packing to the Okanagan, where we took a 4.5 acre field of grass and turned it into Nichol Vineyard Winery,”  said Nichol.

When the Nicholls decided to retire 17 years later, they chose Nelson—a major reason being he knew there was a “music scene” there that he could become involved in.

“Now my life has come full circle. Music is my primary focus, and winemaking is a hobby.”

With the OSO, Nichol is among a large cast of extras who are hired as needed from the freelance pool of musicians drawn from the Southern Interior and Lower Mainland.

Nichol’s lifetime in music is personified by a bumper sticker he used to have on his vehicle that read: “Live Music is Best.”

“Music has the power to plumb the depths of our psyche and elicit intense emotions that lift us out of the mental detritus of everyday living into a transcendental awareness of our oneness with a larger spiritual reality,” he explained.

“If in the course of a live performance, an emotional synergy envelops both performers and audience, feelings of transcendence can be enriched by a powerful sense of community. The concert becomes a form of Eucharist. This is the ideal, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of possibilities awaiting both performer and audience.”

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The Okanagan Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend will feature guest performer Ariel Barnes, principal cellist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The OSO will be joined by Barnes for concerts in Kelowna on Friday, Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.; Penticton on Saturday, Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m.; and Vernon on Sunday, Nov. 22, 7 p.m.

Tickets are $56.25 for adults; $49 for seniors and $26.75 for youth, available for the Kelowna concert by phone through Kelowna Tickets at 250-862-2867 or online at okanagansymphony.com.

“Classical elegance and courtly charm describe the music of Mozart’s era,” said Rosemary Thomson, music director of the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra.

“Featuring music written in or inspired by the 18th century, this concert will be luminous and graceful, showing off the classic beauty of the era.”

Barnes is internationally recognized for his unique tone and passionate performances. Equally comfortable in musical languages from the Baroque to music of our modern times, his performances range from evenings of unaccompanied Bach to world premiers of contemporary art music.

His chamber music recordings have been nominated for a Juno Award and two Western Canadian Music Awards. He is also one half of the contemporary music duo Couloir.

As a winner of the 2012 Canada Council Instrument Bank Competition, he has been awarded the use for the next three years of the 1730 Newland Johannes Franciscus Celoniatus cello, built in Turin, Italy.

In January 2013, Barnes was appointed principal cellist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.