Musician Spotlight: Nicholas Finch

WHAT MAKES DON QUIXOTE unique in the cello repertoire is that it is explicitly “program music.” Most of the music that cellists perform with orchestra falls under the rubric of so-called “absolute music”– i.e. music that is abstract and non-representational. It does not tell

a specific story – rather, it speaks to an abstract emotional experience. Audiences can choose to insert their own story on top of this if they wish, or otherwise they can simply bask in its cathartic qualities—qualities that are often difficult to put into words. Instrumental music achieves this in ways other art forms cannot, which is what makes it singularly powerful among all art forms.

Program music, on the other hand, tells a very specific story. Strauss prided himself on his ability to tell specific stories using instrumental music. He once told a friend, “Do you know what absolute music is? I don’t! I want to be able to depict in music a glass of beer so accurately that every listener can tell whether it is a Pilsner or Kulmbacher!” Strauss has come closer than any other composer to achieving this feat in his retelling of Don Quixote. In Miguel de Cervantes’ fantastical tale, a gentleman from La Mancha, Spain, leaves his home (his head filled with tales of gallant knights from all the books he’s read), to go on a chivalrous quest for glory. That this quest is completely in his own mind as he loses grip on reality, with windmills and sheep suddenly becoming deadly enemies, is what makes the tale both comic and tragic.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a live performance of Don Quixote. It was in the fall of 2003, during my first semester as a student at Juilliard. The New York Philharmonic featured their principal cellist, Carter Brey as soloist. I was young and extremely insecure, and at that time I couldn’t even fathom attempting such a daunting piece. How truly lucky I am to find myself, 16 years later, blessed with the opportunity to perform this astonishing work with the Louisville Orchestra.