Violinist goes for the gold in Russia
NIGEL ARMSTRONG is competing in the Tchiakovsky International Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Nigel Armstrong hates to be called a violin prodigy but really, there is nothing else to call him.
The 21-year-old Sonoman has traveled the globe, from Norway to Argentina, competing in the most important classical music contests on the planet. His most recent undertaking has him in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he is a finalist in what is considered the most prestigious music competition anywhere, ever: the Tchaikovsky International Competition for violin, cello, piano and voice.
Last Friday, Nigel was one of only five violinists to make it to the final round of competition. On Monday and Tuesday, he performs his final pieces in the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, beginning with the "Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto," which all violin competitors must play; followed on Tuesday (today) by the "Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1," a piece Nigel selected for its complexity.
"It's extremely difficult, I think he wanted to show the judges he can do the most difficult pieces available," said Marc Armstrong, Nigel's father, who's been watching each round of the competition online.
When the competition wraps up on Wednesday, the finalists will all fly to Moscow where the winners will be announced during an awards ceremony on Thursday. The competition covers violin, piano, cello and voice, with winners declared in each category.
The grand prize musicians will earn a gold medal and 20,000 euros ($28,560 US), with cash prizes also awarded for second- through fifth-place, meaning he's guaranteed to walk away with something. First place winners will also be invited to perform with the Mariinsky Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Nigel is up against violinists from Russia, South Korea, Israel and the United States, but he can already call himself a winner. He earned special recognition and a 2,000 euros ($2,856 US) prize for best chamber concerto performance with his rendition of "Stomp" by American composer John Corigliano during the second of three rounds of competition.
"He totally threw down the gauntlet with that piece," Marc said.
During that performance, Nigel called on an old-fashioned fiddling technique that requires a player to put the instrument behind his back and perform without looking at the strings. It's a trick he picked up at the Cloverdale Old-time Fiddle Festival years ago, his father said.
"He just played it in the old, traditional fiddle style," Marc said. "The audience didn't get it, they were kind of quiet. But the judges knew exactly what he was doing. He told me when he looked up all the judges were smiling. He must be the only person in that competition that has ever played a violin behind his back."
The jury consists of a lofty group of classical musicians who have all made it to the top of the competitive music circuit. It is an intimidating crowd to perform in front of, but Marc said Nigel can handle the pressure.
"My read is that he's completely comfortable, he loves it... He has nerves of steel," he said, recalling one of Nigel's earliest violin competitions when he was 13 and had to perform in front of a crowd of around 1,200. Marc asked his son if he was nervous, and Nigel said he was.
"I said '1,200 people, I'd be nervous too.' And Nigel said, 'No I'm not worried about that. I'm just nervous because I can play or two or three different ways and I don't know how to play it.'"
Marc said that mixed into the crowd of music dignitaries watching Nigel perform is a familiar face: his younger brother Peter. Peter has spent the past year living in Kazan, Russia, studying the language through a scholarship with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, a program of the State Department.
"It's pretty neat that they get to do this together," Marc said.
Nigel was drawn to the violin at a young age, picking up the instrument at a music class and holding it perfectly without ever being taught. He began his instruction with Sonoma music teacher Leta Davis' Young Fiddlers before moving on to study under Zaven Melikian and Lee Lin of the San Francisco Conservatory. He got further training at the Walnut Hill School of Performing Arts in Boston before heading to the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles, where he graduated last month. This fall he'll head to Philadelphia to get his master's degree at the Curtis Institute of Music.
"He's really shown that he wants to be a world-class musician," Marc said.
The Tchaikovsky International Competition began in 1958 and, like the Olympics, is only held once every four years.
To be considered for the competition, musicians must submit a performance DVD as well as a resume of experience, and out of hundreds of applications only 24 violin players were selected to compete.
To see performance footage from the event, visit www.tchaikovsky-competition.com/en. Video of Nigel performing can also be seen at www.sonomanews.com.