Just don't call him a prodigy (From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)
Nigel Armstrong would never agree, but he's a wunderkind. A musical genius. An honest-to-god twenty-first century (here comes the word he hates) prodigy. He's played with the Boston Pops, the Asociación de Profesores de la Orquesta Estable del Teatro Colón, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, and the Berkeley Symphony. He's played with the Bozeman Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic, and the Downey Symphony Orchestra. With the Sonoma County American Philharmonic, Armstrong was a featured performer for two consecutive seasons. He is currently co-concertmaster of the Colburn University Orchestra and concertmaster of the American Youth Symphony. And he's only 20 years old.
The kid is loaded with talent; he is prodigiously endowed. But his story begins, as most great stories do, with the serendipitous forces of fate. As a young child, Armstrong's family happened to move into a house situated across the street from a Suzuki violin teacher named Leta Davis. Suddenly, little Nigel's life had a soundtrack. By the age of four he was pestering his parents for lessons. They laughed and told him to wait, thinking the urge would pass. But Nigel knew. At five he picked up a violin and skipped across the street. He hasn't put it down since.
The facts of his story are easy to tell, but how it happened-how and why brilliance pops up in a family-remains a mystery. How does a family beget genius? How does a regular boy from a sleepy wine country town manage to storm a world stage?
Armstrong has made a habit of making an impression. This year he got noticed in Olso, taking the silver at the Menuhin Competition. People were talking again in Buenos Aires, when Armstrong snagged another silver at the First International Violin Competition. On home turf, he has taken gold at the Boston Symphony concerto competition and again in San Francisco. He blazed his way to first place at the Downey Symphony competition. And again in Culver City. Gold, too, at the Burbank Philharmonic contest. At this point, Nigel Armstrong's got more bling than Mr. T.
To date, no fewer than three repertory companies-the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, the American Philharmonic, and the Culver City Symphony-have named Armstrong recipient of their Young Artist Award. It's incredible, but it's no surprise: when Nigel Armstrong was only 14, he took first place in the regional San Francisco Bay Area American Society of String Teachers (ASTA) 2004 competition. Then he went on and won state.
Today, Armstrong is a senior at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, where he studies technique with Robert Lipsett. He's scheduled to appear with the Burbank Philharmonic, the American Youth Symphony, the Culver City Symphony and the Colburn Orchestra under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner. In the summer of 2011, Armstrong will make a recital tour of Argentina. His foursome, the Peresson Quartet, has been making music together since February. In May, they will debut in Sonoma (see below).
When we first spoke to Nigel Armstrong more than three years ago, much of the above was still in front of him. He was at the brink, that jump-off-the-cliff moment when a raw talent is about to leap into a much bigger arena. It seems embarrassing now, but we asked him if he was "well-rounded." He said, "sort of rounded." We asked him if he was "real," because he seemed too good to be true: quiet, polite, a genuinely nice kid. "Real," he promised.
Time would tell. Then, he had just graduated from the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and was about to start at Colburn, a new music school with a rapidly mounting reputation. Admitted on a full-ride/all-expenses-paid scholarship, Armstrong was now among extremely select company: only 120 other highly-gifted students were admitted to the freshman class. Scary for others, maybe, but not for Armstrong. He is nothing if not grace under pressure.
So he jumped. And stuck the landing. Three years and many performances later came Oslo, his first international competition. He and his mother Kristen arrived in Paris at the precise moment every last flight was canceled, the airport information boards awash in flashing red. The Icelandic volcano spewing ash over northern Europe had ground air travel to a full stop. So Kristen bought a handful of maps, rented a car, and they set off for Oslo with a couple of stranded Koreans in tow. Mere mortals might have been freaked at this turn of events. Not Armstrong. He took in the scenery, he told us, enjoying its ethereal beauty. It was "surprisingly calming," he says. "The car was too small for me to practice." Whew. When they arrived Sunday night, after 26 continuous hours of driving and nearly two days late, Armstrong still managed a performance good enough to advance him to the semi-finals. Forty-eight hours later, he and three other finalists were on the stage of the Oslo Opera House. Twenty-year old Nigel Armstrong took silver, rocketing into the consciousness of the international classical music culture.
That culture, despite the calm it invokes, can be a world of constant pressure. Execute an etude with something short of perfection and it just isn't good enough. How does young Nigel Armstrong manage to bear up? He limits his practice sessions to no more that six continuous hours (!) because his neck and shoulders and left hand start to tire. A distinct daily rhythm quiets his mind, with mornings reserved for practice, afternoons for study, and evenings for rehearsal. And he takes Bikram yoga-that's the sweat-it-out kind, where the room is heated to 105 degrees. He's begun studying Chinese (he already speaks French), and his summers at the Aspen Music Festivals have made him quite the hiker.
Nigel Armstrong is a musician on a journey most of us cannot imagine, for ourselves or our children. He is quiet, he is calm, he is dedicated. He doesn't want to be like popular violinist Joshua Bell, who's being marketed as a superstar to attract a younger audience. That sort of image-making is not for Nigel. Frank Peter Zimmermann and Leonidas Kavakos are his inspiration; serious, cerebral musicianship is his polestar. "They have an honest way of playing," he says. "It's very genuine and doesn't feel put on." Nigel describes his style on stage as "old-fashioned." He likes to "stand up and play without much movement." Pop culture has influenced people like Bell, he says, but he thinks "music should be more serious that that."
He's a kid. He's a man. He's a genius, and we don't use the word lightly. How he got that way-or why-besides a good deal of hard work-is a story yet to be written. Nigel himself doesn't fret over such things-it's just his life, he says. A life we'll likely be watching.
(From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)