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Laurie Niles

Violinist.com interview with Nigel Armstrong: Peace after Graduate School

April 10, 2014 10:22

Violinist Nigel Armstrong will perform this weekend with the American Youth Symphony at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles, as part of the Symphony's Alumni Project. He was the group's concertmaster from 2009 to 2011.

It might be one of the last opportunities to hear this excellent young violinist before he goes on a hiatus of undetermined length.

Nigel Armstrong
Photo by David Fung

In December, Armstrong, 24, turned in the Scarampella violin he'd been borrowing. "I don't have any concerts planned past May, and I'm planning on exploring a bit of the Buddhist monastic life this summer," said Nigel, speaking with me over the phone on Tuesday from Boston. He's worked intensely on the violin for an extended period of time: studying four years at the Colburn School followed by two at the Curtis Institute; performing as a soloist with numerous orchestras; and winning awards international competitions, including the 2010 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition and the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. "…As I embark on my post-school years," he wrote on his Facebook page in March, "I'd like to move in a direction in which I'm able to find peace within myself. And, by doing so, to be able to share it with others." This summer he plans to spend some time at Plum Village in France, a Buddhist practice center in a Vietnamese Zen tradition.

Will he return to the violin? "Possibly, if I feel like I can do so in a way that I feel is fundamentally positive, in terms of what I'm doing, not just in terms of what I'm playing, but in terms of how I go about my life that supports that playing," he said.

One thing is for certain: Nigel has reached an extremely high level of violin playing, which he has spiced with a sense of adventure and individuality. Take for example: this recording from the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, in which he plays "Stomp" by Corigliano:

Written by John Corigliano especially for that 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, "Stomp" has became a go-to showpiece for Nigel, who not only mastered how to negotiate the scordatura violin and foot stomping required by the score, but also added his own dimension of complexity by playing a portion of it with the violin behind his back.

For the piece, the E string is tuned to E flat, and the G string is tuned down a minor third to an E, so the strings from bottom to top are E-D-A-Eb. When he played it for the first time at the Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg, "the judges were up on a balcony, and then the rest of the audience was in the main level," Nigel said. "I remember looking out, when I put the violin behind my back, and a lot of people were craning their heads backwards, to see what the judges were thinking!"

Apparently they were thinking good things: Nigel was awarded the Best Performance of the Commissioned Work for his performance of "Stomp." But what made him take that crazy risk, the behind-the-back stunt?

"When I was young, when I was 8, 9, 10 or so, I used to go to fiddle contests in northern California," Nigel said. "I remember there was this man, perhaps 80 years old, who got up and did a trick fiddle show. He would play the violin, starting by just moving it down his shoulder and side, and then playing on his hip, and then playing on his head, playing behind his back, playing under his leg…" (he laughs)

"When I got the score for 'Stomp,' Corigliano had written a very nice note for performers on the introduction page, before the music starts. It gave some Youtube references, to give an idea of what the stomping would be like and what the style would be. Then he ended by saying: 'I hope you have as much fun playing this piece as I had writing it' -- and that got to me a little bit. I forget when the idea struck me, but soon thereafter I was thinking about maybe working in something, like putting the violin under my leg, behind my back, or something nontraditional, something more fiddle-like, in the performance. I experimented with a few different things, but I thought the best place (for something non-traditional) would be this place in the middle (of the piece) and the easiest position for me to get to was behind the back, so I started practicing that."

Nigel still enjoys playing fiddle and jazz, and in fact "I'm doing a couple jazz recitals in the Central Valley, the weekend after this next one," he said.

And which jazz and fiddle players does he most admire? One of his favorite recordings is The Goat Rodeo Sessions, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile on mandolin and Stewart Duncan on violin. "I really enjoyed that CD," he said, and while playing with a fellow Curtis student who was a bassist, he had the opportunity to take a few lessons with Edgar Meyer. "It was great to get to know him a bit. It's really imaginative, what he and that group has done, taking the traditional feel for music and bringing so much creativity to it, and seeing where it can go. One of the tracks on 'Goat Rodeo Sessions' is called '13-8,' -- it has these very complex meters, yet it retains this kind of fiddle feel."

Nigel, originally from Sonoma, Calif., started playing the violin when he was five and a half, after asking for lessons for about a year, he said. "My first teacher lived across the street, and I would hear her students playing, and also my mother played a bit in the house," he said. He started with Suzuki lessons, then went on to study with Zaven Melikian in San Francisco, Robert Lipsett at Colburn, and Arnold Steinhardt and Shmuel Ashkenasi at Curtis.

Competitions have provided a wonderful way to see the world, he said. "A lot of these competitions pay for people's travels and put people up," he said, "so you can, as a young musician, visit many different places all over the world." When he played the Menuhin Competition in 2010, it was in Oslo, Norway. And the Tchaikovsky, of course, took place in St. Petersburg, Russia. "That's been my only time in Russia, and getting to know St. Petersburg -- it was wonderful. The first three rounds were held in the Glazunov Hall at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and everything is light and larger-than-life: the walls, the organ, and beautiful fresco ceiling on the top, and then on one side they have these almost floor-to-ceiling length windows. Because it was in June, people would be playing recitals that ended at 10:30 or 11 at night, and there was still sun streaming in! It was really beautiful to be there."

Another way he has explored the world has been through language: in addition to English, he speaks French, German, and some Chinese and Spanish -- and just a bit of rudimentary Italian and Korean. "What I find fascinating about language is the light it sheds on how we think and how we communicate," he said. "I see speech as a type of improvisation. It rides upon these thoughts we have, which are translated into these words that come out. It also works the other way, in that we learn to have certain thoughts or see things in a certain way because of the words that we use."

Though he has had many successes as a soloist, he also greatly enjoys orchestra playing.

"What I love about orchestra playing is the ability to be part of something so grand, so wonderful," he said. "The composers who wrote for orchestra had so many colors at their disposal. Some of my most profound, my most powerful moments as a performer have been being part of an orchestra, playing pieces like Beethoven Nine, which I played with American Youth Symphony, or being part of a Brahms Symphony -- I love the ending of Brahms Symphony No. 2. To take part in some of these grand, expansive pieces, to be a member of this huge instrument, it's really thrilling."

1 reply

Violinists can't tell a Strad from a new violin -- in a 30-second guessing game!

April 7, 2014 21:59

The New York Times headline says, "A Strad? Violinists Can’t Tell." USA Today's headline said, "Violinists can't tell new violins from old, study shows." The Daily Mail: "Is it all just a fiddle? World's leading violinists CAN'T tell the difference between a Stradivarius worth millions of pounds and a modern instrument."

They are talking about a study by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, Hugues Borsarello, Indiana Wollman, Fan-Chia Tao, and Thierry Ghasarossian, whose results were published online April 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was conducted in September 2012 at the Auditorium Jean-Pierre Miquel (Coeur de Ville) in Vincennes.

Even the study itself, entitled "Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins," claims, "The current study, the second of its kind, again shows that first-rate soloists tend to prefer new instruments and are unable to distinguish old from new at better than chance levels."

Is that really what this study proved? I thought it might be a good idea to read the actual study and look at the details of the process and supporting information.

Here are some thoughts, after doing so.

First, the luthiers and social scientists who did this study picked a nice group of people to participate: the 10 soloists who tested the violins were: Olivier Charlier, Pierre Fouchenneret, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Ilya Kaler, Elmar Oliveira, Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, Annick Roussin, Giora Schmidt, and Stéphane Tran Ngoc. (That's seven males, three females). Based on the information given, two of those people normally play new violins, one plays both a modern and a new; and seven play old violins.

Ilya Kaler
This framegrab image from video, provided by Stefan Avalos, shows soloist Ilya Kaler wearing welder glasses so he can’t see the violin during a test of old and new instruments outside Paris in September 2012.

In two 75-minute sessions, players were asked to evaluate 12 violins -- six old, and six new -- and choose which one they would want, if they were replacing their own violin. In the final seven minutes of the last session, they were given violins in rapid succession and ask to identify which were old and which were new. The whole experiment was "double-blind," players wore goggles and could not see the instruments. The study listed no information about the preparation of the violins; whether the makers of the new instruments were hovering nearby, ready to adjust the soundpost and bridge, whether luthiers even looked at the Strads before they were used (this was a problem in the first test). Also, we don't know how old the strings were on any of the violins, and if they were all the same age. That can make a huge difference in the perception of a violin, whether the strings are brand-new; new but nicely broken in; or just plain old. I'd be curious, and maybe there's an answer for that.

When it came to preference, six violinists preferred new violins and four preferred old ones. The players did not do better than the roll of dice when it came to the seven-minute guessing game at the end.

What does all this prove? To me it proves that new violins do better than 300-year-old ones in brief, blind tests. I'm not in the least bit surprised by this. Time and time again, violinists tell me that the 300-year-old Italian violins, such as the Strads of the Golden Period, take time to learn to play -- years, even. The rewards come over a long period of active partnership, which also involves experimenting with set-up, strings, etc. If the period of time is a couple of hours, then I would imagine that yes, new violins would be easier and more preferable. Even so, just 6 of the 10 soloists in the study preferred them. It was nice, though, that the players had a bit more time to evaluate these violins than in the first study.

The soloists certainly were not given much time, when it came to identifying which violins were old and which were new. In fact, that part of the experiment took place for a total of 7 minutes, at the very end of the second of two 75-minute sessions. Instructions for the players were: "We will now present you with a series of violins one at a time in random order. Play each for 30 seconds then guess what kind of instrument it is." In other words, at the point where they would have the highest amount of fatigue from playing all these violins, they were given a half-dozen or more violins in rapid succession, in random order, and asked to identify them as being old or new in 30 seconds apiece.

You can tell me how legitimate that sounds to you. I welcome your thoughts, and certainly I'd recommend that everyone read the actual study before letting the headlines do the thinking.

Let me add, I would agree with many people who have said that the present moment is also a golden period of violin making. There are some amazing luthier/artists out there whose extraordinary work deserves the highest praise and whose instruments deserve to be in the hands of the finest players. I also respect the old Italian instruments for what they are: shining examples of the art of lutherie that have withstood the test of time.

25 replies

Violinist Book-Signing Party!

April 7, 2014 11:47

I would have liked to have had all of you to my "Book Signing Party" Sunday for Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1, but since you couldn't all make it, I'll tell you about it!

Laurie signing at the book party

First of all, it took place at the lovely Pasadena, Calif., home of my friends, David and Cheryl Scheidemantle, both extraordinary violinists themselves, whose three children also are young musicians. About 40 friends and colleagues came to help welcome my book into the world, enjoy some wine and cheese and talk violin. I couldn't be more grateful! I had a lovely time signing books for violin fans, players and students - even a couple of violin makers!

Big turn-out at the book party

I also read a few passages from the book, including the one below, which was from my interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Leila Josefowicz, about the Violin Concerto that Salonen wrote for her.

I would love for you to get this book, it's available through Amazon. And I promise to sign it for you, next time I see you in person! :)

(If you are wondering which violinists are interviewed in this book, they are: Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Ruggiero Ricci, Maxim Vengerov, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, Rachel Barton Pine, Nicola Benedetti, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Zachary DePue, James Ehnes, Simon Fischer, Augustin Hadelich, Janine Jansen, Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Philippe Quint, Tasmin Little, Elmar Oliveira, Stanley Ritchie, Lara St. John, Philip Setzer, Clara-Jumi Kang and Judy Kang.)

3 replies

Review: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Honors Stradivari Violins with Strad Fest LA

April 2, 2014 12:56

As art objects, Stradivari violins create a stunning lineup of masterpieces, each instrument with its own 300-year-history:


But in the hands of live artists, these historic objects release their voices and deliver living moments of music. It's a profound union of past and present, art and artist.

Strad Fest
Photo: Lee Salem Photography

That was the magic of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's four-day Strad Fest Los Angeles, which featured (from left to right, pictured above at Saturday's gala concert) Margaret Batjer on the the 1716 "Milstein" Strad; Ray Ushikubo (age 12) on the c. 1720 "Beechback"; Xiang "Angelo" Yu on the 1666 "Serdet"; Chee-Yun on the 1714 "Leonora Jackson"; Martin Chalifour on the 1711 "Kreisler"; Philippe Quint on the 1708 "Ruby"; Cho-Liang Lin on the 1715 "Titian"; and Elizabeth Pitcairn on the 1720 "Red Mendelssohn" (not pictured above).

I attended two of the events: a concert Friday called the "Stradivarius Fiddlefest" at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, featuring five of the fiddles; and the concert portion of Saturday's "Stradosphere: a Strad-Studded Gala Evening," which included all eight performers and violins at The California Club in downtown Los Angeles. The festival honored the violins of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), who made some 1,100 instruments -- violins, violas, cellos, guitars and harps -- in his Cremona, Italy workshop. About 650 survive, and some 500 of those are likely violins.

When a violinist plays a Strad, a unique chemistry occurs. It's not always good -- and yet it can be sublime. It sounds nutty to say it, but after talking with so many violinists over the years and also test-driving a number of Strads myself, I can attest that these instruments have rather complicated personalities. An instrument that sings for one violinist might put up a fight with another perfectly good musician. It's a relationship, a lot like a relationship with another human. There are those "love at first sight" kinds of situations, but time and careful attention tend to help.

So in some ways, this meeting of so many artists and instruments felt a bit like a chemistry experiment: chemistry between artist and instrument, between artist and artist, between composer and artist, perhaps between composer and instrument, maybe even instrument and instrument! Some of these violins and violinists were long-time partners; others were meeting for the very first time.

Friday night's "Stradivarius Fiddlefest" was billed as a face-off, featuring Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint and Xiang Yu, who played in teams and as soloists, with LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane at the piano when needed. The Broad Stage, a contemporary theatre that opened in 2008 and has exceptional acoustics, was sold out for the event, with a crowd of 499 people.

The evening began with a good piece for comparing four violins: Telemann's Concerto in D major for Four Violins, with Lin, Chee-Yun, Quint and Batjer. The motives in this Baroque-period piece repeat throughout the four voices, allowing one to hear the same bit played by different players. My first impression was that here were four really different volume levels and rather individual voices. I wondered, was it the soloists, or the instruments, that have such strong individual voices? Does a Strad tend to stick out in a group, kind of like a soprano singing in a boy's choir?

Throughout the evening, various players spoke about the instruments they were playing, giving history and also their own impressions about playing the instrument. LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer talked about how the 1716 "Milstein" Strad landed in America five years ago, when Pasadena resident and owner of Brighton Collectibles Jerry Kohl fell in love with the idea of owning a Strad. Batjer and Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, were enlisted to help Jerry and Terri Kohl choose the Strad they would buy. They spent about eight hours testing eight different Stradivari violins -- brought by dealers from Chicago, London and Austria -- at LA's Disney Hall. "We had an amazing day," Batjer said. But for her, the most amazing part was when she took the "Milstein" Strad from its case and recognized it immediately as the violin that the great Nathan Milstein once played. "I cried. I couldn't believe what I was seeing -- I knew that it had spent 15 years in a bank vault." The Strad now resides in the Los Angeles area, where Jerry and Terri Kohl lend it locally, most often to Batjer and to Chalifour.

Cho-Liang Lin then spoke about his 1715 "Titian" Strad, made just a year before the "Milstein." "Very conceivably, they sat on Stradivari's work bench at the same time," he said of the instruments. And here they were, reunited after nearly 300 years. "I think the old man might be pleased, but he also would be flabbergasted by the price!" That is, in the $ millions. Lin's violin received its name from a dealer, who felt that its color reminded him of the paintings of 16th-century Venetian artist, Titian. Once played by Efram Zimbalist and Arthur Grumiaux, the violin was in the hands of a private collector when Lin came upon it. Lin already had a nice violin, but he fell madly in love with the "Titian." "I felt like I was committing violin adultery by loving this instrument!" he said. He wrote the collector a letter every year, offering to buy the violin, and every year, the collector graciously turned him down. "It was like asking a girl on a date, and she keeps saying no!" Lin said. When the collector died, though, his will gave Lin first option on the instrument. When the executor of the will called to tell him this, "I didn't sleep that night!" said Lin, who now owns the violin.

Strad Fest
Cho-Liang Lin plays the "Titian" Stradivarius and Margaret Batjer plays the "Milstein" Stradivarius, LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane on piano. Photo: Jamie Pham

Above, Lin and Batjer played the last two movements from Moszkowski's Suite in G minor, Op. 71, after Philippe Quint and Xiang Yu had played the first two movements. This is a heavy piece in places, full of double stops and easy to overplay. I enjoyed Quint and Yu's second movement, where the beauty of these violins' voices emerged best in the softest passages, as did their camaraderie in the cute "pluck, pluck" of an ending. Lin and Batjer likewise achieved some real beauty in the slow threading in and out between their lines in the third movement, and in the stillness they achieved by the movement's end. Their accelerando at the end of the fourth movement also was nicely paced and very exciting.

Philippe Quint took the stage alone to play a work which is too new to awaken any sleeping ghosts from the "Ruby" Strad's long past: John Corigliano's Red Violin Caprices, Variations 4 and 5, composed after the 1997 movie music. The "Ruby" is on loan to Quint through The Stradivari Society of Chicago.

"It gives me great pleasure to play the music of a composer who isn't dead," said Russian-born Quint with a smile.

Quint has been playing the "Ruby" for four years and clearly knows this Strad and its secrets, fully inhabiting this fiddle with maximum tone and quality. The Caprices are beautifully composed to flatter the solo violin, with its open strings, voice and sound. By the end, Quint was expertly riding the far edge of "as fast as you can go" and still bringing out a melody in that thicket of notes. What a thrill!

The 1666 "Serdet" Strad, currently owned by the Beare family in England, is the earliest-known Strad, and its label solved a mystery. "We knew that Stradivari was a woodmaker, but we didn't know for sure that he was a pupil of Nicolò Amati," Batjer said. That is, until the label inside the Serdet came to light; it says, "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolais Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666." In other words, it credits Amati as the then-young Stradivari's teacher. Batjer quoted the 20th c. Italian luthier and Strad scholar Simone Sacconi: "All my life, I wait to see this violin -- it must be Number One."

Violinist Xiang "Angelo" Yu, who was playing the "Serdet" for the first time during Strad Fest, said, that "I believe every instrument has an individual soul, and I'm always trying to see, 'What are you trying to tell me?' This is a wild, gorgeous horse -- you never know what is coming next." To show its qualities, he played the last movement of the Franck Sonata, with its long unbroken lines. This piece is known for its fiendishly difficult piano part (Franck was an organist) -- what a treat to have Kahane at the piano, nailing those notes.

Chee-Yun brought out a nice, strong sound from the 1714 "Leonora Jackson" Strad -- a violin that was somewhat darker in tone than the other Strads in the room. As she played Saint-Saens "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," the earth shook -- literally! A 5.1-magnitude earthquake hit Los Angeles just then, and the floor moved as all heads and seats visibly swayed side-to-side. At least half of the people I surveyed afterwards said they were so captivated by the music, they didn't feel it or notice at all! (Absorbed as I was, I did notice it -- I've lived in CA only 15 years and these things still faze me!)

Afterwards, Chee-Yun described her anxiety over her first meeting with "Leonora," owned by William and Judy Sloan of Los Angeles. She would be meeting the violin for the first time upon arriving in Los Angeles for "Strad Fest" and was concerned about having enough time to get to know the instrument, which was played by Joseph Joachim, then by Leonora Jackson, who was a turn-of-the-20th-century soloist and among the first American violinists with an international career.

"What if she doesn't approve of my playing?" Chee-Yun wondered of "Leonora's violin." But after playing it, "I felt immediately warmed by her violin. I'm living the dream right now!"

Chee-Yun and Philippe Quint then took the stage together, noting that despite their long friendship, this was their "debut" as a duo. Nonetheless they made an ideal team for Sarasate's "Navarra," Op. 33, which they played with great joy, chemistry and precision in a billion tiny fast notes. These two should play together more often!

More Strad Fest
Chee-Yun plays the "Leonora Jackson" Stradivarius and Philippe Quint plays the "Ruby" Stradivarius. Photo: Jamie Pham

Cho-Liang Lin showcased his "Titian" with the more quiet and elegant "Habanera" by Ravel, played with heart and lucid trilling; followed by Kreisler's "Tambourin Chinois."

The violinists gathered in groups of four for two tangos: Piazzolla's "Oblivion," which was so sultry and effective that members of the audience gasped at its conclusion, following that with mad applause for Quint, Chee-Yun, Batjer, Lin and bassist Nico Abondolo. Quint switched out with Yu for the second tango, which never really got back on track after a bad count-off. (Fortunately, when the group played this piece again at the Gala on Saturday night, it went much better.) Friday's concert concluded with Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances, each dance played by a different violinist, with the last dance played by all. (Quint's beautiful, dead-on harmonics were a testament to the fact that it's possible for that movement ("Pe Loc") to sound gorgeous and other-worldly rather than to pierce the ears and summon all neighborhood dogs to the door.)

The following night's Gala concert was held in a beautiful room with high ceilings, giant chandeliers and antique furniture at at the California Club, with about 300 guests. Added to the roster of violinists that appeared on Friday night were Martin Chalifour, playing the 1711 "Kreisler" Strad that is owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and 12-year-old Ray Ushikubo, playing the 1720 "Beechback" Strad, so named because the back is made of beechwood.

The evening began with the seven violinists playing Bach's "Preludio" from the E major Partita, passing the musical line from violinist to violinist. Again, styles varied greatly, but it was a nice way to hear the differences between the violins and the violinists.

One of the best moments in this concert was when Margaret Batjer joined Xiang Yu to play the slow second movement of the Bach Double. They found surprising drama in this familiar piece, which was well-suited to their partnership.

Then came a Bach Triple! This piece, the "Allegro" from Concerto in D major for Three Violins, was played by Lin, Chee-Yun and Chalifour. It's more of a virtuoso Baroque vehicle than is the Bach Double, providing each soloist the opportunity to play a note-y and treacherous solo -- no problem for this crowd.

Batjer joined those three for Ludwig Maurer's "Allegro from Sinfonia Concertante in A minor for Four Violins." What an adorable piece; it sounded as though it were written with the express purpose of making a child smile by showing trick after trick, all with a certain degree of comedy. It worked. As the violinists took turns executing downward cascades in pairs, as if trying to out-do each other, the audience actually laughed out loud.

Near the end of the evening, the youngest violinist, Ray, was asked how it felt to play a Strad for the very first time. He summed up the feeling well:

"It feels awesome!"

* * *

After dinner, violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn showed her violin up-close to those at the Gala. Here is a picture of her, with her violin that inspired "The Red Violin" movie, with the Gala's co-chairs:

Red Mendelssohn
Violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn shows her "Red Mendelssohn" Stradivarius to Sandy Gage (left) and Pat Gage. Photo: Lee Salem Photography

5 replies

Bach Presto, all over Toronto

April 1, 2014 19:07

I'm glad someone has finally figured out how to dance the "Presto"! Stephanie Cadman dances all over Toronto to Bach's G Minor Presto, played by Lara St John. Bach out, ladies!

2 replies

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