By CAROL SAFFER
When Nicholas McManus was given the choice of playing violin or cello in grade 2, he chose the cello because he could sit down.
“I was a very practical seven-year-old,” Nicholas says about his time at Sydney’s Trinity Grammar School.
Now, the 21-year-old principal cello with the Sydney Youth Orchestra is gaining practical experience as he learns, works, and plays with world renown cellist Umberto Clerici.
Nicholas was in his first year at the conservatorium in 2014, when Umberto was appointed principal cello of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and cello lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium. Umberto tutored the string quartet in which Nicholas was playing.
On working with Umberto, Nicholas says “the biggest thing that I learnt is the importance of knowing everyone else’s music. I had never done this before, knowing everyone else’s parts as well as your own so you can [play] just as well as them”.
“He will stop the rehearsal and mention something to a section of the orchestra that we probably overlooked. He will say ‘you have to be more characteristic here’, or point something out that is obvious to him.”
While the young musician thought this was daunting at the time, Nicholas now says Umberto “is such a rock. He is solid in his playing and his ideas for the orchestra when we start playing with him. He is so confident and amazing at everything he does. It is a really good experience all round”.
Nicholas has also come under Umberto’s influence on the importance of not playing too loudly. Nicholas describes Umberto’s emphasis on balancing the soloist versus the orchestra (coming out in solo parts and going back when you are accompanying) as “changing how loudly and with which colours you play”.
Umberto is the soloist in the upcoming Sydney Youth Orchestra’s performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. He first performed the concerto with an orchestra 16 years ago in the final round of the Janigro competition in Zagreb. He has since played it as many as 30 or 40 times.
Nicholas, on the other hand, only started learning the concerto very recently at the conservatorium with his teacher Julian Smiles.
“It is very demanding in technical ability and focus and structure. It is often regarded as the biggest cello concerto. It is the kind of piece you play until your career is over – and you still haven’t mastered it,” Nicholas says.
SYO conductor Alexander Briger and Umberto are Dvořák enthusiasts. Nicholas says: “SYO is in some ways an educational program. You need to have an open mind and go along with Alex and Umberto and play it the way they want you to – so that we can learn for the future”.
Nicholas acknowledges that eventually, he will need to leave Sydney to broaden his horizons. But in the meantime, he says the best thing about working with Umberto is the “sound he makes. When he plays [it] is such a boost for morale, it makes everything sound better. It is like the secret ingredient”.
See Nicholas perform in the SYO with Umberto Clerici in The Masterworks, 2pm, 19 November in the Sydney Town Hall. Discounted tickets for CutCommon subscribers!