This New Canaan favorite son is making a musical statement that’s uniquely his.
Andrew Armstrong hardly looks the part of a daredevil. Dressed casually in a charcoal V-neck pullover, jeans and sandals, he cuts an unassuming figure. And though his eyes are serious, he seems more studious than death-defying. His manner is polite and contemplative. If you were to encounter him while driving, he would more likely wave you in ahead of him than blast his horn for encroaching upon his right of way.
So it is curious that Armstrong takes pride in his aggressive approach to his career and music, pushing beyond what is safe and predictable, sometimes at a heavy price.
In striving to build his reputation as a concert pianist, for example, Armstrong is reluctant to decline engagements that might serve his artistic growth or his rising fame. You might find the former New Canaan resident fresh off a successful performance in Charleston, South Carolina, taking no time to celebrate or recuperate but hunkering down posthaste in preparation for an entirely different, equally challenging concerto one fast-approaching week later in Carmel, California.
Such a schedule can be daunting. At best, it is an improbable way to build a winning streak. That he captivated his audience in one venue, Armstrong knows, means nothing to classical music lovers at his next stop. To fall short, he says, might get him laughed out of town. Perhaps a greater danger, in an era in which bad news travels fast, is to become known as a performer who can’t deliver.
Which explains why Armstrong takes almost perverse pleasure in laboring at his keyboard hour after hour into the night, the calendar be damned. “I really feel I’m living on the edge a lot, and I think I’m a bit of a junkie in that respect,” he says. “I think I’m a junkie in the way that I play, too. Because generally, if there’s a place in the music where there’s a choice of taking a risk and risking missing notes in order to create a certain tempo or a certain sound quality, as opposed to playing safer, I always choose the former, probably to a fault.”
If you are searching for Thomas Andrew Armstrong, his motivations and his methods, this is where the trail begins to get warm. His need to push the limits, to mine the depths of the music and to make a musical statement that is uniquely his says a lot about the thirty-three-year-old’s life and career, from his acclaim as a teenage piano phenom to the hard realities he later experienced on the bumpy road toward recognition that he travels today.
At a time when classical music faces major challenges, from calls for greater relevance to fierce competition for the attention of listeners, especially young people, Armstrong is winning fans on several fronts — as a soloist with orchestras, a chamber ensemble member, and a solo recitalist. He is busy year-round with performances across the United States and around the world; his self-produced CD of pieces by Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Mussorgsky, named simply Andrew Armstrong, has seen steady sales; and he is often a featured performer on National Public Radio as well as WQXR-FM, the New York classical music station.
“Andy is the kind of individual who gives his complete and utter self to a performance,” says Richard Serbagi, a recently retired New Canaan High School music teacher who has known Armstrong since the pianist was a child. “He’s not going to say, ‘Well, I’m going to play safe and I’m going to play every note and every note is going to be perfect.’ He’s going to say, ‘I’m going to perform now, this is a performance, what happens, happens.’
“He prepares himself diligently, but it’s not safety. It’s trying to come to the essence of the music. If he drops a note, which all performers do, that’s secondary to the real excitement and beauty of the music. That’s what he always pursues.”
Indeed, Armstrong’s greatest contribution to the music is that of his own emotional response and interpretation. “It’s not just technique,” says Margaret Mercer, WQXR’s program director. “He’s got artistic conceptions. I was listening to his CD of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition recently, for example, and he really steeps himself in the music and tries to understand and have a point of view and an expression.”
Armstrong’s determination to put his stamp upon the music goes back to his earliest days at the piano. He enrolled with piano teacher Bebe Rodde, at her home across from the New Canaan Country Club, when he was seven years old, a late start compared with many who go on to play professionally. Even then, he only asked his mother, Judith, to sign him up because he was jealous that his sister Jane, who was two years older, was getting lessons and he wasn’t. (All five of the Armstrong children — Andrew was next to youngest — studied with Bebe, though Andy was the only one to continue with the instrument.)
Initially he balked at the time commitment that the piano called for. Now and then, Andy considered quitting. No problem, his mother told him, but you’ll have to come up with a productive activity outside of school to replace it. Faced with that choice, Andy always stuck with the piano.
Meanwhile, Andy’s father, Thomas, who had played piano growing up, made a surprising discovery one day when he settled in next to the boy at the family’s battered Wurlitzer upright. “I sat down with him to play a duet and I was shocked at how he shaped the music, just horsing around. I realized that he had a talent that was more than just hitting the notes and hitting them on time, loud and soft, and so forth. He really had something.”
That “something” further revealed itself when Bebe entered Andy in a local competition. Thomas, a computer consultant, remembers Andrew and Jane participating in a Junior Schubert Club event in Greenwich in which his son took second place (followed by Jane in third.) “The piece that he played was just a small Chopin prelude, maybe a page or two of music,” says Thomas. “But he really put a lot of soul into it and it came through. That was the first time that his music got noticed outside of us thinking he was doing exceptionally well.”
As Andy took part in, and won, more area contests, others were also struck by what they heard. High school orchestra director Richard Serbagi, for one, says he first saw Andy in a competition when the boy was in sixth grade. “I heard him play a Chopin nocturne,” Serbagi recalls. “And I turned to one of the other teachers and said, ‘Where does that beauty come from? Where does it come from?’”
One would be hard pressed to identify the ultimate source of the strains that Andy was producing. Yes, Andy’s father would work with him before competitions, questioning him about the composer’s intentions, encouraging the boy to think deeper about the music. Yes, Andy’s maternal grandfather was a jazz singer and his great-grandfather a bandleader. And yes, Andy’s parents exposed him to lots of music, especially on family car trips to visit his grandparents in Michigan. But perhaps the best answer to Serbagi’s question is more metaphysical than rational: “I just think it’s a gift,” says Linda Trefny, a retired middle-school history teacher who has known Andrew since he was in eighth grade. “I think he’s a musical soul.”
By the time he was fourteen, Andy began thinking about playing the piano for a living. Bewildered as to where he could receive such training, his mother went to Serbagi for advice. He, in turn, brought Andy to play for Miyoko Nakaya Lotto, an accomplished private teacher, who took him on as her student at the Hoff-Berthelson Music School in Scarsdale.
For the first few months, Andy failed to understand how much was required of him if he hoped to play professionally. “It didn’t dawn on me that people could play the piano for six to nine hours a day,” he says. “I’ll always be grateful to Miyoko. She took me aside one day and she said, ‘If you can live without playing the piano, please do.’
“And then she said, ‘The world doesn’t need another pianist. You do have a lot of talent. But there are people crawling all over the planet with a lot of talent. It’s not going to be that everything is thrown in your lap and people welcome you with open arms because they’re so grateful that you’re doing this.’”
Andrew got the message. He began practicing with greater dedication. And though he loved sports — he played soccer, basketball and tennis as a freshman at New Canaan High School — he set them aside to focus on the piano. Before long, he was winning piano competitions in the tristate area, then around the country.
Andrew attended Columbia College, his tuition paid in large part by the prize money from his many competition victories. Rather than study music, as might be expected, he majored in English literature.
Balancing school and the piano was difficult. It became tougher toward the end of his freshman year, when as the youngest musician at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, his performance caught everyone off guard. So moving was his offering that Van Cliburn himself, a legend in the music world, lauded Andrew before the event was even over. And though the nineteen-year-old faltered during the next round, he came home with the Jury Discretionary Award and a future that seemed limitless.
Reality, though, played out differently. In all, Andrew would win twenty-five national and international competitions. The piano had taken him to China, where he played Liszt with the Shanghai Symphony; Russia, where he studied at the Moscow Conservatory; and Warsaw, where he reached the semifinals of the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition, another of the more prominent contests.
Once, Armstrong strode into competitions confident of victory, and he was usually right. Now, none seemed to go his way. Andrew went nearly five years without a win. When he returned to the Van Cliburn in 1997, he failed to make the semifinals. He had quit college a year before graduation because he was so busy with his music. Less than a year after his disappointing return to Texas, he felt it was time to also leave his teacher, Miyoko, as well as the competition rat race.
“When I was eighteen, to have someone tell me how to play each measure, how to play each note, was a great gift,” Armstrong says. “But now it was becoming a weakness. I had come to a point in my life that it would be better to say all the wrong things on stage with my own voice rather than say all the right things with someone else’s voice.”
His plan was to forge a career performing for audiences. “I told myself that I spent the last ten years asking the world if they’ll grant me a career; I’m going to stop asking and I’m just going to take a career. The only way to do that was to actively go out and ask for concerts, get them, and play any time I can.”
Almost overnight Armstrong’s world had changed. So much of what had served to define him was gone: College. His teacher. Competitions. For all he had lost, perhaps Andrew was seeking an emotional anchor. He got married in 2000, to Ayako Yoshida, a violinist who grew up in Japan, and they often performed together. The marriage, in the end, lasted little more than a year.
Meanwhile, whatever contacts Armstrong made after his Cliburn success had long since vanished. And though he had ability, Andrew was starting on the ground floor in a field, like most fields, in which who you know could make the difference between playing Carnegie Hall and Kokomo.
But Andrew had no problem with any place where people were willing to hear him play. “I took all kinds of concerts,” he says. “I would take a red-eye back from California after an evening concert in Los Angeles and play in the afternoon in New Jersey, and because of the airfare I’d clear $200 on a couple of the hardest weeks of my life in preparation and performance. But I always told myself that I’m investing in creating new performance opportunities and creating a skill for myself, that I’m a professional pianist who performs regularly.”
His debts mounted. His parents worried about him. One year he had seventy performances, many of them music-lovers luncheons for which he drove four hours to earn a few hundred bucks. With so many small dates, he had little time to grow and learn different pieces. Sometimes he would be on the verge of landing a performance with a top-notch orchestra only to have it fall through for one reason or another. Others rejected him because he had no experience playing with comparable-sized orchestras, a Catch-22 because none would give him a chance. For a time, he lived in a Manhattan studio apartment in which his piano occupied almost the entire space, while Andrew slept on the floor in a sleeping bag.
These days, Armstrong’s sacrifices have begun to pay off: His relationships with fellow performers have opened various doors. He is, for instance, part of the well-reviewed Metropolitan Museum of Art’s resident chamber ensemble.
Small gigs have led to bigger ones. Not long ago, he accepted his uncle’s invitation to play at his church in Michigan. Someone in the audience happened to
be a neighbor of Günther Herbig, principal guest conductor for the Columbus Symphony in Ohio. The man brought Herbig a copy of Armstrong’s CD. The conductor, in turn, came to Andrew’s next performance in town, liked what he heard, and invited the pianist to join him in Columbus next month.
Andrew is also down to a manageable forty concerts a year, a number of them around Connecticut and the vicinity. His experience has reached the point that if someone asks if he has played this piece or that with an orchestra, he can usually say yes, that he’s good to go.
His popularity continues to spread. Last summer he performed Mozart’s Concerto 24 in C Minor at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. It was later broadcast on WQXR. A group of twenty-two admirers from New Canaan, led by family friends Linda and George Maranis, chartered a bus to enjoy a picnic and to hear their favorite artist. “He has a lot of fans in this area,” says Linda. (He will appear as part of the Waveny Chamber Music Society concert series on May 20 at the Carriage Barn Arts Center in New Canaan.)
Last year Andrew signed on with a professional New York manager, Stephen Lugosi, who expects that by 2010 Armstrong’s career will be running on all cylinders. “My personal standard in accepting artists is that they end up with the biggest and best orchestras in North America,” he says. “If I don’t see that potential, I don’t touch them.”
Armstrong has since abandoned New York for a place in Greenwich, an in-law apartment at the home of his former history teacher, Linda Trefny, a friend and true believer in his talent.
Does all that nocturnal piano playing disturb Linda’s slumber? “It’s not an issue,” she says. “The apartment is at the opposite end of my living quarters.
“Anyway, it’s wonderful. In the summertime, I have the windows open and the neighbors actually enjoy it, too. In fact, if he’s away, such as when he plays on the West Coast, they come out and say, ‘What’s happened to the music?’”