Nickel’s Second Symphony

NICKEL: Symphony No. 2 / Northwest Sinfonia; Clyde Mitchell, cond / Avie AV2456

If you’ve heard of composer Christopher Tyler Nickel before, you’re one up on me. Apparently he also writes film and TV music, which immediately put up warning bells in my mind since I generally detest such music, but remember that Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten also wrote some film music and Marius Constant wrote one of the most iconic TV theme songs ever.

Still, I wasn’t surprised when the symphony started. Nickel writes in an accessible, tonal style that goes back to late-1930s non-serial and non-Stravinsky-influenced classical music, with just enough unusual harmonic touches here and there to make it interesting. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with tonal music if you have something interesting to say and you know how to create a good musical flow, and this Nickel does.

Yet, naturally, parts of it sound like “GUC-music,” the kind of thing I hear on my local classical FM radio station, WGUC, and of course what millions of others hear on their own classical FM stations. Set in B minor, it stays in that key for a long period of time; it is only with the first loud explosion of sound at 4:42 that one begins to sit up and take notice. The promo sheet accompanying this release describes it as “Vast, deep and emotional.” It has just enough of those traits to keep one listening, but there are moments where I felt that Nickel  was just marking time, i.e. at the 7:20 mark where the music becomes hushed and quiet bur doesn’t say very much before returning to its dreary B minor theme. Alas, this is what you sometimes get when you’re a composer writing for mass consumption and not for listeners who appreciate more complex scores.

Still, I have to admit that it’s better than just a “movie symphony.” Nickel clearly has some talent, as can be judged by the more energetic episode that begins around the 17-minute mark, but he seemed to me reticent to explore these moments more fully lest he lose some of his “GUC: listeners.

Bottom line: The symphony contains some interesting ideas, but they’re only half-developed and too repetitive to make this a lasting work that will attract many discerning listeners, but it’s great for Millennials because it isn’t too complex or deep. And for crying out loud, Christopher, get out of B minor!!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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