Altered States

Classic Arts Features   Altered States
St. Louis Symphony violinist Nicolae Bica on the musician's experience.

Nicolae Bica is one of three native Rumanians who are members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (Silvian Iticovici and Eva Kozma are the others). Bica has been a member of the Second Violin section since 1999 and was something of a no-brainer in terms of being selected as a subject for the 2006-2007 season brochure. Charming, affable, with a marvelous sense of humor and generosity of spirit, Bica is also very photogenic. But no one had any idea what a terrific model he would be. After some three hours in the photo studio, Bica said he was just warming up. He struck a variety of poses and offered photographer Scott Ferguson an assortment of expressions: thoughtful, pensive, moody, sleepy, ruminative. He held his violin perpendicular to his thigh and stood like Donatello's David.

Bica speaks with a heavily accented English — think of Luka on the TV series ER. During an interview with the violinist, in which he describes his experience with rare, transcendent, moments onstage, he is a bit insecure about his ability to effectively communicate such an occurence in words. As Music Director David Robertson has observed, the ways in which music communicates is unique, in part, because it is musical and non-verbal. Tones, colors, a luminous C major chord: musical language is invested with meaning, and alternative meanings.

Yet for all of Bica's hesitations, he conveys a compelling idea of what can happen in concert when many distinct variables come together: a sense of stillness, of timelessness, in which perceptions become skewed. Bica recalls an April 2002 concert with former SLSO Music Director Jerzy Semkow, who conducts the SLSO again this season (in a November 30-December 2 program of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Kyoko Takezawa in her SLSO debut, and Brahms's Symphony No. 1).

"That concert in 2002 was one of the only times I felt something physical," Bica says. "I thought the performance was so good. I thought everything was put together so well, I couldn't move. It was kind of like exhaustion, but more like shock at how well it sounded. It all blended so well. It was all Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Third Piano Concerto, and the Third Symphony. After the first piece we had to move so they could bring out the piano and I remember thinking, 'What just happened?' It was kind of surreal. It was a sense of stillness. Everything froze. It's almost like we went back in time and lived 150 years ago."

Bica acknowledges that the presence of Semkow, who served as SLSO music director from 1975 through 1979, in part, lent itself to the experience. Semkow is familiar to many of the musicians, whereas his eccentricities add a degree of chance to any performance. "It's also because of him and my idea of him: the way he rehearses and the way he prepares for the concert, and also the way I think he is — the way he's very picky about his hotel room. With this concert everything worked, so I thought he must have had a very good room and he must have slept well the night before. Everything fit together so well and was executed well. I felt that you could hear what Beethoven wanted to say."

Invested in the language of music, then, an orchestra further develops a musical dialogue that was begun more than a century ago. The orchestra isn't playing history; rather, it's always playing in the moment but with Beethoven present in every note.

Bica observes that not only the passage of time, but spatial relationships change as well when a musician is taken in by the music. "The dimensions get warped," he says. "The bottom gets lower. The sky gets higher. It is a physical sensation. Maybe I have memories of my home when I play any 20th-century Russian composers, or Bart‹k, but mainly it's physical. It's a sensual experience."

Perceptions can shift in performance. Even in landlocked St. Louis, the totality of the sea might become an overwhelming presence — for the musicians and the audience. "I think of Debussy's La Mer in terms of how it feels to play and what it feels like in a performance," Bica observes of the masterpiece that will be performed by the SLSO on February 2-3. "What is fascinating about La Mer is that when it's played right, you feel a connection with the audience. If it's played well, you can take them with you on this journey. I don't know what everybody else is thinking or feeling at the time, but somehow we all move together and there is a connection between us. That's because of the way the piece is. It paints a really good image of the sea, of movement, and fluidity."

The erasure of time, a dialogue with Beethoven, a journey through altered states, the incessant motion of the sea — for Bica, live performance can make anything happen.

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