Long Friendship Produces Lots of Music

David Russell
David Russell

Music faculty members and husband and wife Sam Nichols and Laurie San Martin have known cellist David Russell for 20 years, and they’ve been writing music for him nearly that long.

Nichols' newest piece for Russell, “This Is Not a Toy For a Child,” will have its first performance by the UC Davis Symphony and Russell on Nov. 21. The concert is at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis.

Russell, Nichols and San Martin met while they were students at Brandeis University in the 1990s. They each have written three pieces for Russell, who is a lecturer in music at Wellesley College.

“We go way back,” Nicholas said. “He and Laurie hit it off and then the three of us became close friends. David was interested in weird things we weren’t studying and played these bizarre pieces that for us were very broadening.”

Nichols proposed the cello concerto to orchestra music director Christian Baldini several years ago. His earlier pieces for Russell had been for solo cello and a cello trio; they were both excited about creating a work for orchestra and cello.

“We've really been talking about making this piece happen for 15 years at least,” Russell said.  “The work that Sam and I have done together on other pieces has really been warming up for this one.”

The piece is a memorial to Nichols’ grandfather who died in 2009. His grandfather was an antique dealer specializing in toys. Near the end of his life he sent a small windup toy bird to Nichols and San Martin as a gift for their two daughters. The side of the box clearly stated “This Is Not A Toy For A Child.”

“I thought it was wonderfully ironic and funny,” Nichols said. “And I liked the idea of a warning label as a title for a piece of music.”

It also seemed like a good title for a piece for Russell, who also has young children.

“On some level it reflects the interaction between children and parents, and teachers and students,” he said. “This also parallels the interaction within an orchestra between players, soloists and conductors. All the music is fairly simple and straightforward, but it is fragmented and put together in a complicated manner.”

“Sam is such a close friend that it's hard for me to comment precisely on what pleases me in his music,” Russell said. “He's done some things that really exploit the huge color and emotional range of the instrument, and I absolutely love that.”

Since 2009, all six music composition faculty members have written a work for the orchestra.

Also on the program are “Les offrandes oubliées”  (The Forgotten Offerings) a 1930 work by Olivier Messiaen and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 in C Major from 1907.

Listen to the first movement of Laurie San Martin’s cello concerto performed by David Russell and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra.  

Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science