By Joe Deaux
Nicholas Armstrong relaxes in the front pew at Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights clasping in his left hand wine in a clear plastic cup. He is the conductor of the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra. It is a semi-professional orchestra. Some musicians are paid and others are volunteers. He wears a black suit, black slip-on shoes, a banded shirt – one with no collar – buttoned up and no tie. He is a large man. He hovers at about six feet four inches tall and is broad at the chest and shoulders. His face glows and his eyes are soft. His hair is a mix of grey and dark shades. He is 53 years old.
Armstrong is only 30 minutes removed from Maurice Ravel’s La Valse. It is a robust orchestral work that is written in waltz timing except for the final measures. The conclusion of the piece is like a roller coaster. Armstrong swayed and flailed his arms as he conducted. His head bobbed rhythmically. He stood on his tippy toes and violently dropped his body to add a physical staccato the final note. He turned to the audience with a broad smile on his face.
Armstrong’s conducting is the only part of this symphony in full view; there is no stage in the church, which means that the musicians in the Brooklyn Symphony are level with their audience. The result feels like watching a one-man silent movie with a musical score overlaying the performance.
“Music is a drama,” Armstrong says. He adds that conflict and resolution are central to the symphony. He believes the conductor’s purpose is to become a guide for the audience. “It’s like saying, ‘Places please, Act 1,’ but you can’t just walk away,” he says referring to the director of a play.
He enjoys challenging his musicians. He gives them suggestions instead of telling them how to act out their parts. He likes to present programs with a theme for his audiences. He characterized the problem with the symphony as being very “museum-ie”. To alleviate this predicament Armstrong tries to conduct at least one contemporary piece at each concert. “It is great and important to do a piece where the ink is still wet on the score,” he says. He believes our culture is not interested in new classical music.
Armstrong speaks with a British accent. His initial response to a question is to pause and then to collect his thoughts as he gazes at the balcony. His replies are deliberate. Playing music is the oldest activity he can remember doing. He started by singing at his church. He begged his parents for a piano. They bought him a “cheap and upright” piano and acquired for him a “cheap and upright” teacher. Armstrong plays viola, piano and harpsichord. But his favorite instrument is the violin.
He pursued a degree in viola performance at the University of Bristol. His next move was playing at the Teatro La Fenice opera house in Venice, Italy. “I played under so many poorly prepared conductors,” he says. So he received a Master’s degree in conducting at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“New York begged me to come,” Armstrong says. He admits that he does not have the personality to push for an international career in conducting. Instead he teaches at Poly Prep Country Day School in Bay Ridge as the Performance Arts Department Chair.
The Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra is in its 37th season and 14th under Nicholas Armstrong. It started as a small group of amateur musicians in Brooklyn Heights. Armstrong embraces the fact that they are an amateur orchestra. “We are a community orchestra,” he says.
The borough’s professional orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, cancelled its season last year. This cancellation left the BSO as the only local choice for Brooklyn symphony-goers. But the two symphonies do not compete. The Brooklyn Philharmonic’s dilemma is symptomatic of many symphonies in the United States after the Great Recession. The Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra’s greatest strength might be its semi-professional status. Armstrong receives a stipend. The orchestra also pays its harpist, percussionists and the concert mistress. Everyone else is unpaid. Each performance is preceded by eight rehearsals.
The orchestra’s playing is crisp. The musicians are on point. They do not mimic an international caliber symphony. They are one. And it is unsurprising when one understands their conductor.
The lights extinguish in the Church. Armstrong loosens his collar. He pauses and takes a sip of wine. He understands music beyond the notes. He admits to loving Baroque music. “It is very logical music,” Armstrong says.
A symphony orchestra, he says, is an important part of social existence. The first piece of the program this night was Symphony No. 2 in F by James Cohn. Cohn composed the score at the Julliard School in 1949. Today marked its American premiere. Cohn had approached Armstrong a year ago asking if he would select one of his symphonies for a program. Armstrong jokes that he probably would not have chosen the piece if he did not find Cohn entirely charming.
After Armstrong conducted the final note, he turned to the audience and began applauding a person in the crowd. An old man with ghost-white hair and a hunch in his posture stood up with his hands at his sides and hung there for a few minutes. It was Cohn, hearing his piece for the first time in 60 years.