The music is the star for local cellist

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

Nicole Pinnell walked onto the stage at the Ragan Theater at Utah Valley University for the final number of the UVU Symphony Orchestra’s winter concert on Dec. 3.

Wearing a bright purple dress and plenty of eye-catching jewelry, her infectious smile was still the focal point. She sat on a small stand near the podium, perching her cello at a lower height and more of an angle than those already set up among orchestra members.

The thunderous energy of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor began.

Once Pinnell began to play, it was clear that her relationship with her instrument is an intimate one.

She bent over the cello, cradling it toward her chest. Her eyes were closed much of the time, eyebrows creasing over the emotion of each measure, fingers feeling their way to each note.

There was an audible “wow” in the audience after she finished the first movement.

Born in California in 1971 and raised in Wisconsin before settling in Salt Lake City, Pinnell first discovered the cello when she was 9 years old.

“I saw it in a string shop. … It was so beautiful,” she said in an interview following the concert. “And they pulled it down and said I could try it, and this big, booming, beautiful sound came out. … I was hooked.”

Glowing is the best word to describe Pinnell when she is not intensely engaged with the cello. Friendly and expressive in her conversations, she’s unassuming, welcoming and hardly wears her accomplishments on her sleeve.

And she has a lot of accomplishments she could be boasting about.

Pinnell made her solo debut with the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12. She started teaching cello lessons when she was 13. She became assistant principal cellist at the University of Wisconsin and performed in Carnegie Hall when she was 14. At 16, she won a contest to study one-on-one with cello great Yo-Yo Ma.

When asked if she considered herself a prodigy, she paused for a moment, smiled and laughed nervously as she replied, “Yes.” She quickly credited some of her music teachers when talking about her early accomplishments.

Pinnell says she lives by the motto, “determination, not talent, is the key to success," a thought taken from a clipped newspaper article she kept in her room as a child.

“I practiced very hard,” she said. “Every musician works really hard.”

This musician is far more forthcoming when talking about her instrument, music and other people than she is in talking about herself.

One of her recent albums — the only album, really that she can call one of her own — is “Sunday Morning with Classical Cello,” which also features Czech cellist Michal Kaňka. Her name is found listed in small print beneath the tracks on the inside cover.

“The idea with that album … is that my focus is on the cello,” she said. “It’s on the music. It’s not on me. That’s my intention.”

When she’s not talking about the music, she'll readily gush about other artists who inspire her or teachers and mentors she’s had.

Pinnell studied primarily with cellist Peter Howard. Howard was a duet partner to renowned violinist Pinchas Zukerman. Both Howard and Zukerman helped Pinnell learn to be a strong duettist.

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