Nigel Armstrong’s regional debut

By Roger Emanuelsarnstrong

THE SANTA CRUZ COMMUNITY welcomed Nigel Armstrong, the new concertmaster of the Santa Cruz Symphony, as he performed a recital before an enthusiastic audience at Cabrillo College Samper Recital Hall October 22. Symphony music director Daniel Stewart introduced the newcomer and even participated in a duo performance.

Armstrong chose an adventurous program that covered a wide variety of historical periods and musical styles, and he delivered in each category.

A most personal and intimate way to introduce himself and his violin was to open with a prelude by Bach, from the E Major Partita for unaccompanied violin. There are moments of rapid arpeggios across the strings that create a sustained sound similar to an organ holding chords. The playing was meticulous, allowing the notes to ring. Armstrong explored the dynamic range of the violin while creating contrasts in phrasing that easily engaged the listener.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt draws on medieval polyphony and Gregorian chant among other influences. His Fratres (Brothers) dates from 1977 and exists in many different instrumental arrangements. Who would have guessed that the Bach Prelude and Fratres would pair so well on a concert? The string crossing arpeggios of Bach require the same violin technique as Pärt’s opening statement. The work unfolds in a meditative style, often with rapid arpeggios in the violin over mostly sustained chords in the piano. Pianist Elizabeth Dorman provided a colorful accompaniment-bed for the active violin part.

The excellent acoustics of Samper Hall seemed compromised in the Sonata No. 2 in A by Brahms. The thick textures favored the piano to the detriment of the violin, which often sounded secondary. Although Ms Dorman was careful not to cover the violin, the piano had a presence that distorted the balance between the instruments. Perhaps an acoustic shell would have helped. In addition, the performance lacked expressive warmth, due largely to Armstrong’s lack of variety in his vibrato.

Music director Stewart joined Armstrong in a delightful performance of Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in G. They were a comfortable pair, matching intonation and style in all three movements. Stewart obviously keeps up his chops as a violist. His warm and rich tone in the lower register provided a resonant bass voice. It was obvious that he was thoroughly enjoying the experience. Their playing was marked by rhythmic vitality, while creating a warm and rich blend. Their ensemble was impeccable.

The concert concluded with French music of the early 20th century. Debussy’s La plus que lente and Clair de lune are solo piano pieces that sound lovely in these arrangements. Ravel’s Tzigane is a violin showpiece that reflects the sounds of gypsy style, with the piano often imitating the sound of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer commonly paired with the violin in Eastern European coffee houses and taverns. The piece requires playing in the highest registers of the low G string, which usually creates choked and distressed sounds. Armstrong’s violin sounded lush in that unusual register. There are moments of dazzling technical feats that seemed effortless in Armstrong’s playing. This was an exciting conclusion to a concert that had both variety and unity of programming.

Armstrong was received by the audience with enthusiastic applause throughout the concert. His engaging personality is affable and modest, and he is comfortable sharing his thoughts out loud. The audience was not about to let him off without an encore, so he offered the Gavotte from the same Bach Partita in E Major that opened the program. The piece sparkled with dance-like character.