Crown Heights

On the record: Interview with Maestro Nick Armstrong 

June 15, 2023 Lucien Clough
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BROOKLYN EAGLE: How do you feel right now? This is your last concert as artistic director, what’s this feel like for you?

NICK ARMSTRONG: The obvious answer is bittersweet. This is my family, and I’ve been with them for 32 years. I played with them first. Yeah, so a lot of people weren’t even born yet (laughs) when I started doing this. But they’re amazing, they are a wonderful wonderful group. They’re very dedicated musicians. We rehearse on Monday evenings, and you can’t imagine what it’s like to come out of the first day of work in a week and have to go to rehearsals. Everyone is really committed, and making music is a real privilege for all of us, for me definitely. But, after 30 years, I think it’s good for them and good for me for new blood to come in. They’ll spend next year looking for a new music director, but I won’t be too far away, I’ll be around.

EAGLE: So what are your next steps, what’s on the horizon for you?

ARMSTRONG: Well, I’m a violinist, so I’ve put together a piano trio with the pianist who’s playing today, the principal pianist in the orchestra. We’ve been playing in a trio now for about a year. I also wanted to put together a small string chamber orchestra with some of the string players in the orchestra and some other people I know uptown. I also want to travel, that’s the main thing. I’ve been threatening to move to Europe for years and years and years. My first job was at the opera house in Venice. I fell in love with Venice forty years ago, and I’m still in love with it. I’d love to go back to it, I still have friends there.

EAGLE: Yeah, so I know you sorta city hopped a little bit and then stayed here in Brooklyn for–

ARMSTRONG: 35 years.

EAGLE: 35 years, yeah.

ARMSTRONG: I’m that Brooklynite with the weird accent.

EAGLE: Right! What brought you here and what kept you here?

ARMSTRONG: What brought me to the States was that I met my first partner while in Venice, he was an architecture student he was touring Europe, and we met one another and I followed him back here. And that was… god 45 years ago.

EAGLE: And you just stayed ever since.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, we were together for 20 years, it was a good relationship. I’ve come out of another relationship fairly recently and now that I’m a single man in my old age, and now that I’m not tied down anywhere.

EAGLE: Bachelor!

ARMSTRONG: Weird to put it that way, but yeah. And as much as I love this group, it’s something that just keeps me here in Brooklyn all the time. I’m the kind of person who’s a bit of a control freak, I don’t like letting go, that is, when I let go I let go completely. So people say if I’m gonna stick around and take on a consulting role…no, the time is needed to take my graceful exit and go with all the love that’s there, which is very palpable for me, they keep coming back for more.

EAGLE: Can you also talk about the four pieces that you’ve chosen for today, what inspired you to choose these four pieces, and what was the process like working with them?

ARMSTRONG: The first piece we’re gonna do is the “Andalucia” suite by Lecuona, and there is an audience member, and he is a huge fan of Lecuona, I think there are ten siblings, and they lost their mother years ago, and her favorite piece was the malaqueña from this suite, so he approached me, and said, “if we contributed to the orchestra a little bit would you be able to do it?”

EAGLE: Beautiful

ARMSTRONG: So it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.

The second piece is by a young gay composer, Clint Borzoni in New York. And I was supposed to do this three years ago but the pandemic got in the way, so I figured it would be nice to do. The second is a Mozart concerto…a stunning piece, a beautiful piece. The Dvorak no 8 symphony is a standard piece of the repertoire, everyone knows it. That you can’t go wrong with; that’s relatively straightforward to play—I always like to challenge them, they tell me “You never quite know what Nick’s gonna give us,” but this one they can have fun playing, they’re not gonna trip over the notes. Well, knock on wood!

EAGLE: Ha! Awesome! My last question is being with this group for so long, what are the changes you’ve seen this orchestra go through and what do you hope your legacy is with them? 

ARMSTRONG: When I joined the orchestra, they’d had a very good conductor, a very fine violinist, and he was very — he pushed them — but the group really was [a] stereotypical community orchestra, like retired dentists and old ladies. Quite a few of those. We have a huge number of younger people now, and part of that I think is — it’s so difficult to make a living in the profession but we have a lot of people who trained professionally, so they’re looking for a good space to play and keep their skills going. I think I’ve created that environment and I’m proud of that. So if anything I think I’ve made something in Brooklyn that people can come to and feel good about doing  and they’re getting something out of it  and giving something back to it

EAGLE: It’s very much like a community…

ARMSTRONG: It’s a community all the way around. It’s very much about making this work. 

EAGLE: Great, well those were all my main points, if there’s anything else you want to say…

ARMSTRONG: I’ll say that I’m leaving just in time for the 50th anniversary of the orchestra, which is next year, so I’ll be back for that, directing this concert next June.


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