Cellist Nick Reeves May Be Bach’s Biggest Fan

The young cello protégé hears the master’s influence in contemporary music.


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Photo by Dave Strauss

Nick Reeves is only 18 years old, but he’s wowed audiences coast to coast with his virtuoso cello performances. That, however, is not what he wants to talk about.

“Go ahead, tell about … ” his dad, Geoff Reeves, gently prodded his son during a recent interview in a Rockridge cafe. Nick looked blank for a minute.

“Oh yeah, I played at the White House,” he said with a shy smile. “I met Michelle Obama.”

“And …?”

“Oh, and Yo-Yo Ma. I played at the Yo-Yo Ma concert.”

But ask him about the joy of playing Bach, and he lights up like the marquee at the Paramount on a Saturday night.

For Reeves, the rewards of music are not in prizes and accolades. They’re in those quiet moments when he pulls a bow across the cello strings, and magic happens.

“When you play something over and over and then, and all of a sudden you start hearing something new — those moments are great,” he said. “It’s the moment you make it your own. That’s what I love.”

Reeves started playing cello at age 6, but his musical education began at birth. His father plays bass and guitar; his mother, Brenda, is a dancer; his older brother, Evan, plays piano and drums; his grandmother sang with the Cleveland Orchestra; and the house was (and still is) filled with the sounds of Keith Jarrett and John Coltrane, Beethoven and Mozart.

“We went to a lot of concerts,” said Geoff Reeves, whose day job is as a pharmacist. “Mostly free stuff. This area is so rich with live music. We’re very lucky.”

Nick happened upon the cello when he was a first-grader at Black Pine Circle in Berkeley. He liked the instrument immediately, he said, “because of all the instruments, it sounds the most like a person. The highest highs and the lowest lows are really nice. The cello is right in the middle, in a good way.”

His first music teacher, Dina Weinshelbaum, recognized right away that Nick had a gift. For starters, he had a work ethic that most adults would envy. While other 6-year-olds were playing Pokemon and watching Disney movies, Nick spent his free time experimenting with scales and melodies on the cello.

“I’d assign him a piece and he’d go home, find a recording — or several — on YouTube, and then practice until he could play it the way he heard it,” she said. “I think he’s always had a really natural connection to the instrument; it’s a part of him.”

The second, and most notable thing Weinshelbaum observed was the joy and emotion with which Nick approached the music, even as a 6 year old. When he heard something he liked, “his face would completely light up,” she said.

Joe Hébert, a cellist with the Oakland Symphony who taught Nick in middle school, noticed the same thing.

“Nick is unabashedly passionate,” Hébert said. “He expresses the depth of what he feels in the music, and his statement is genuinely real to the moment, which is why his performances are always engagingly fresh.”

Asked when Nick surpassed his dad in musical ability, Geoff answered, “Are you kidding? Right away!”

Nick played cello throughout his time at Claremont Middle School and Oakland Tech, from which he graduated in June. While juggling homework, volunteering, bike riding, and hanging out with friends, he always managed to practice cello two to three hours a day — sometimes even before school. He played with the Oakland Symphony’s MUSE youth orchestra, Berkeley Youth Orchestra, Young People’s Chamber Orchestra, and myriad bands with his friends and at school. He loves most music, but his favorites are Bach, Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, and all kinds of jazz.

Summers, he spent with the Sphynx Performance Academy in Chicago, a full-scholarship chamber music program for teenaged string players of color. It there that in 2016 his quartet was selected to perform at the White House when the Sphynx program won the National Arts and Humanities youth program award.

He doesn’t remember much about the performance, but he does remember Michelle Obama.

“She was so loving; she hugged everyone,” he said. “And she was very tall. I was like 5-foot at the time, and she was bigger than life.”

Last summer, Nick was invited to perform solo at Yo-Yo Ma’s free outdoor concert in downtown Oakland. Nick performed Bach’s Cello Suites No. 2 before a crowd of several thousand.

But maybe his best performances are at home.

“Sometimes he’ll practice while we’re eating dinner, and we’re treated to this beautiful Bach performance,” Geoff said. “We’re so fortunate. It’s been amazing, to see his progression. He’s always had a certain style of playing, right from the beginning. Not just how he plays the notes, but the depth.”

Soft-spoken and modest, Nick is not a ham on stage. In fact, he says he gets a little nervous before performances. What keeps him focused, he said, is the music itself — the thrill of weaving together notes into something wondrous and soulful.

“I do get stressed. But it feels good to make people happy,” he said. “I try to think about that instead of the times I messed up.”

Nick is taking a year off to relax, practice, and prepare for music conservatory auditions in the spring. He doesn’t have lofty goals of playing at Carnegie Hall; he just wants to play chamber music professionally, live a comfortable life, and keep enjoying the music.

In the end, it all comes back to Bach.

“On the surface, Bach can sound simple or old, but it’s the basis of what modern music is built on,” he said. “You hear these things on the radio and you think they’re new, but they’re not new. Bach was doing this hundreds of years ago. … I never get tired of it.”

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