When they first met, Marshall McDonald and Steven Sharp Nelson felt like they fell into the middle of a friendship.
They were both music majors at the University of Utah, and although they didn't have any classes together, they were involved in extracurricular musical activities.
"We had an immediate personal bond as well as a musical bond," says Nelson. "Music adds such sweetness to friendship. When we perform together, it's like we are both on a higher ground." McDonald plays the piano and Nelson the cello, so they can easily make beautiful music together.
They both graduated, they both have other jobs (one in real estate, one in education), they both now have wives and children, but they both continue to make music and if you find one of them, chances are very good that the other one will be there, too.
Their friendship and musical compatibility even extends to composing. "When two people decide to compose together, it usually means they get together and fight," says McDonald. "And I've tried it with other musicians, and it is hard. But for some reason, Steven and I just fit together. He is linear he does great melody from start to finish. I'm vertical. I do the harmonies."
At least, adds Nelson, "that's where our strengths are. Sometimes we swap and he does the melody and I do the harmony. But we're both so laid back. And we respect each other. We disagree, but we can laugh it off, talk it out. We both have a rule never to take ourselves too seriously. That's when it goes from the joy of music to killing yourself for music."
Among their recent collaborations are two symphonies commissioned by the orchestra at Southern Utah University. The first was on the Spanish Trail; the second on Africa. Those symphonies in turn have opened up a world of possibilities for the young musicians.
The conductor of the SUU orchestra is Xun Sun, a native of China, "and we have become good friends," says Nelson. "We see eye-to-eye on music and spirituality."
"We are not of the same religion, but Xun believes in the religiosity of music and wants to bring more spiritual music to his country," adds McDonald.
Their symphony on the Spanish Trail was commissioned by the Spanish Trail Association, which has wanted to call more attention to what is sometimes considered "the southern Oregon Trail. "It connects Santa Fe to Cedar City," says Nelson, "and it was used by so many different cultures the Spanish explorers, the Native Americans, John C. Fremont, the Mormon pioneers. Our symphony has four movements, and each one concentrates on a different culture."
After the symphony premiered with the SUU orchestra in February 2006, Xun took it to China, where it was performed by the Hunan Symphony. He also guest-conducted it with the Ukraine Symphony.
It's exciting to get international play, the composers say. In fact, the symphony was so well received in China that they are now doing a CD, recorded by the China Philharmonic Symphony. "It will be called 'American Journey,' says McDonald, "and it will have the Spanish Trail Symphony, and then a piece called 'Tender Mercies' from our African symphony, and then some songs like 'Homeward Bound,' 'Come, Come Ye Saints' and 'If You Could Hie to Kolob.' We snuck in a few extra of our favorites."
The recording of the CD was an amazing thing, the men say, that happened in a rather unexpected way. "The Philharmonic was on tour with the Olympic flame," explains McDonald, "but all the political unrest, the demonstrations about Tibet came up, and the orchestra was sent home. Xun just happened to be there, and he called to say they had a small window and they could do it now. Steve and I had planned to fly over, but it came up so quickly that we couldn't do that. But we sent the music over to Xun and he did it."
What is also interesting, they say, is that even though Xun thinks the country would benefit from religious music, the government does not. "In fact, they have a ban forbidding the major orchestras from playing religious music. But even though we have some hymn arrangements, because the focus was Americana, we got in under the wire. There is a lot of interest in the American West in China."
Although the "American Journey" CD will be released only in China, McDonald and Nelson were able to put some of the pieces recorded by the China Philharmonic on CDs that they have both recently released locally.
On Nelson's "Tender Mercies," the title tract is from the "Africa," and he uses "Homeward Bound" and "Come, Come Ye Saints" as well. Other songs are favorite hymns, folk songs and even movie music and feature guests artists such as pianists Paul Cardall and Jon Schmidt and guitarist Ryan Tilby, as well as McDonald.
It's very much in the spirit of "Sacred Cello," his first CD, Nelson says, "but there are also a few elements of surprise that show the fun side of the cello. But each song has a special meaning to me."
McDonald's "Sunday Best," is a two-disc set that is something of a "greatest-hits" retrospective of his career. "It's been 10 years since I did my first CD. I wanted to celebrate this past decade with some of the songs that are my favorites." There are six new songs in the collection, including several of the ones recorded in China, as well as an arrangement of "The Lord Is My Shepherd" recorded by the Prague Symphony Orchestra. "It ranges from full symphony performances to intimate piano solos, but I think it is an exciting look at the past 10 years."
And, yes, Nelson is a featured guest. "He's been on every one of my albums. I'm a better musician when he's around.
The two men get together once a week to bounce ideas and work on projects. They are not sure what is next up. "We joke that we've done symphonies on two continents; maybe we should do the other five, like Holst and his 'Planets,'" says McDonald.
They've tossed around ideas for a musical; they also would like to do some movie music. They would like to do musical comedy where's Victor Borge is today's world? they joke. They also do a Christmas concert. "All we can say is that there will be kazoos involved this year," jokes McDonald.
"But we've learned not to try to predict what will happen next. It will all be wrong," says Nelson.
They do know they will be heavily involved in music. "It's like a life score for us," he adds. "Music is woven through our lives so much, there are few silent moments."They like to think their music provides something of a soundtrack for other lives. "That's what our music is all about," says Nelson. "We think music has a divinely appointed purpose to uplift people. When it does that, it fills its role."
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