IT IS 3:55 P.M. ON MONDAY, JANUARY 11, AND SOME-tliing is about to happen in New York, something that may prophesy a spectacular event four months later in Fort Worth.
Roughly 50 people are scattered around Borden Hall, curled up under coats and scarves and Kleenexes in this huge auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music. The New York Times’ announcement of free admission hasn’t exactly created a stampede. You could, as the saying goes, shoot deer in the balcony.
A light snow falls on the elevated railway line outside. The white-cottony precipitation seems to soak up and cushion the sound of the young pianists’ audition-concerts that are going on inside for the Ninth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Kid after kid has trundled onto the stage, played 50 minutes of music for a coldly unresponsive video camera and then disappeared backstage with as much dignity as possible. The music, like its performers, is starting to run together.
And then, at 4 p.m., Andrew Armstrong sits down at the Steinway and starts to play the Allegro moderato of Haydn’s 32nd Sonata in B Minor.
A bundle of purple wool and honey-brown fake fur stirs to life down in row K near the center aisle. The woman in row R puts down her book, takes off her pointy-rimmed reading glasses and gazes like a startled heron at the creature who has turned up on stage. A boy with half his hair shaved away and the other half whipping down around his face stretches his arms over the empty seat in front of him and hangs there, gaping, barely touching the edge of his own seat, poised in obvious wonder at what he’s hearing. The lights seem to have brightened, the air sharpened, the room suddenly invaded by.. .what?
Armstrong isn’t sitting at the keyboard, he’s communing with it, hanging over it, listening as he plays for just the voice he wants from the instrument. He gets it. And as soon as the Presto movement ends the Haydn, a couple of students scurry from the back of the auditorium, then appear moments later with three new friends-the word is spreading through the School of Music. Some >ne special is on the bench. You’ve got to hear this, get in here.
Armstrong moves into Liszt’s Transcendental Etude no. 9, the “Ricordanza,” then on to no. 10 in F Minor. Without a trace of showiness but with riveting concentration, he begins to reel in the gathering audience. People are literally pitched forward, teetering on their armrests, just as the pianist is hunkered down over his labor. Everyone in the hall, Armstrong included, is drinking in, drowning in the sweet liqueur of this sound.
Before starting Persichetti’s third Sonata, he sits, head cocked, a frown on h s face. We’re all frowning, too. There’s whistling going on in me hallway outside the auditorium. Pretty whistling, really, lithe aid birdlike-but no match for the luscious sound that is awaiting its end. He and we wait it out, irritated.
And then Armstrong falls again to his conjuring, we to our awe.
What started as an almost ham-fisted Bavarian hunch over the keys in the Haydn has become a hummingbird’s hover on the Persichetti. Armstrong bends over the whites and blacks, and ministers to them. Maybe he murmurs to them. He ringers their luminous surfaces as if they were beads, prays over the majestic intimacy of the sound rising from them, cries with them, whispers back to mem and, most of all, appreciates them-he turns his head so that his left ear is just above his hands, receiving every shimmer of sound, his face tilted toward the stunned audience, the face of a baroque cherub.
The world has come to a standstill. Not with a jerk, but in a great, gliding, stupendous ritard, all has eased to a merciful stop, everything waits for Armstrong’s Final coup.
And with a range of sentiment deeper than the foundations of the stone building in which he plays, he strokes and caresses the piano into giving him the Ballade no. 1 in G Minor of Chopin, a special inspiration for him. The keys now are in love with him. So organic is the connection between the artist and his instrument that for a couple of bars it appears he could pull away and the piano would sound the tones for him. Likewise, if the piano faltered in its mission, Armstrong might just pluck the missing notes on his own heart strings. The two are one. An impossible cooperative venture, not only between man and music-machine but also between man and audience, is taking place. We listeners are working, too, actively tracking the sound, seduced into the roles of associates, confidantes, physically depressing each key and answering its plunge with heavenward resonance.
No one wants this to end. But when it does we’re wrung out. We’ve played this performance with him, whether we had any such intention to or not. And when he bows with the awkward embarrassment that some have criticized in him, he leaves the stage but has to come back-this still small but ecstatic audience keeps clapping, pounding its adamant approval until Armstrong appears on stage again, a little sheepish, another ungainly bow.
He has been returned to the stage by applause for a mere audition, not even an actual concert. And in the stage light, we can see that his furrowed, knit-brow look is made by dark eyebrows under his Dutch-boy blond, almost bowl-cut hair. Something baby-faced and uncertain is behind his 19-year-old smile.
Only 20 minutes of the 49 he has played will be seen on tape by the initial screening jury of the Van Cliburn Competition. Only 20 minutes can distinguish him from a field of 251 top pianists in 42 countries. More than 188 of them have been taped by backstage technicians in London, Paris, Moscow, Prague, Munich, Venice, Tokyo and Beijing, just as Armstrong has been taped at this audition in New York. God knows the tapings in the gilt and mirrored Sala Apollinee at Teatro La Fenice in Venice are more opulent than these in the dowdy, brown-toned confines of Borden Hall.
But on March 1, it’s announced: What he did in the Borden on that rare January afternoon has made Armstrong one of only 36 worldclass pianists who will be allowed into the competition that starts May 22 in Fort Worth. It ends June 6 in the achievement of an automatic career for the gold medalist, starting with more than $200,000 in a guaranteed two years of international concert engagements.
“Five years ago,” Armstrong starts, then stops himself. “I really shouldn’t tell this. But OK, OK, all right, I will. Five years ago, I was still confusing the names Rachmaninoff and Rockefeller.”
IT’S NATURAL TO WANT TO RUSH TO HIS DEFENSE. OF course a 14-year-old boy wouldn’t have known the difference between Rachmaninoff and Rockefeller. Most American 14-year-olds are unfamiliar with either name. But the teacher to whom he made the mistake of saying he’d been listening to Rockefeller instead of Rachmaninoff had begun her own life at the keyboard at age 3 1/2.
“By the time I was 8. the piano was my life,” Miyoko Nakaya Lotto says. And by the time she’d reached Armstrong’s age of confusion. 14, she was teaching, While still in her teens. Tokyo-born Lotto had immigrated to the United States to teach piano technique classes at Juilliard to students older than herself.
Warm and comforting. Lotto nevertheless has eyes of steel. She laughs only halfheartedly at Armstrong’s memory of his initial misconceptions. She seems to know exactly what her star pupil is heading into.
The easiest moment will come between May 17 and 22 when Armstrong stands amid eight grand pianos-each as big as a boat, most flown in by the best manufacturers in the world-to choose his instrument. Backstage, once he has stepped into the maelstrom of this unforgiving, fateful competition, the competitors’ selected pianos will be lined up like ships coming into a busy port of call.
The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, like American presidential elections, happens only once every four years. Operated by the Van Cliburn Foundation of Fort Worth, the competition began in 1962, when blond, heavy-eye-glassed American Ralph Votapek took its first gold medal. In ensuing years, the coveted medal has gone to feisty Rumanian Radu Lapu in 1966; Brazilian Christina Ortiz, who displayed remarkable arm strength at the keyboard in 1969 (the year the competition switched to odd-numbered years); the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Viardo in 1973; South Africa’s Steven De Groote in 1977; the USA’s André-Michel Schub in 1981; Brazil’s José Feghali in 1985; and, most recently, the supple-styled Alexei Sultanov in 1989. near the close of the Soviet era.
Before this year, Armstrong could not have played his idiosyncratic program of Haydn, Liszt, Persichetti and Chopin in the preliminaries-a compulsory program would have been dictated to him. Now, he gets to put his best foot forward and choose what he wants to tackle for the jury.
In Fort Worth, Armstrong and his 35 colleagues will play their 50-minute preliminary programs lor the competition jury-an illustrious assembly that includes Philippe Entremont. Joaquin Achucarro, John Corigliano, Claude Frank, Nelson Freire, Edward Gordon, Moura Lympany, Lev Naumov, Cécile Ousset, John F. Pfeiffer, Menahem Pressler, Abbey Simon, Takahiro Sonoda and that 1962 first-lime gold medalist Votapek. all under the leadership, for the fifth lime, of John Giordano, music director and conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Twelve competitors will be selected from these preliminary rounds. May 22-26, at Ed Landreth Auditorium on the Texas Christian University campus. These 12 will next enter the grueling semifinals.
“Phase I” of the semifinals is a 75-minute solo concert in which the only requirement is that the competitor play a specially commissioned work. This year’s commission. Morton Gould’s Ghost Waltzes, lasts no more than 12 minutes. The rest of Phase I’s 75 minutes are, again, up to the pianist- Armstrong, for example, has elected to play Beethoven’s Sonata in F Major, op. 54, followed by the commissioned Gould, then Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brllliante, Liszt’s Ballade no. 2 in B Minor (his favorite-“this ballade is like a whole lifetime, it goes through every emotion, every event in life”) and Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 2 in D Minor.
Phase II of the semifinals is the competitor’s choice of one of four quartets or quintets, to be performed with members of the American String Quartet, Armstrong has chosen Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, op. 44. Both phases of the semifinais are May 28-June 1, again at Ed Landreth.
Only six pianists reach the final stage. Each competitor performs two concertos with orchestra, June 3-5 in the theater of the Tarrant County Convention Center Theatre. Armstrong has selected Mozart’s Concerto 23 in A Major, K. 488 for his first concerto, which must be performed with the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra. For his second concerto, to be performed with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Armstrong has chosen Liszt’s Concerto no. 1 in E-flat.
The decision to let competitors choose their own programs precedes such changes in the Cliburn’s sister international competitions-the Tchaikovsky, the Harvey Leeds, the Queen Elizabeth and the Chopin. This enlightened approach, says the Cliburn Foundation’s executive director Richard Rodzinski, is intended to say to the competitor, “Let us hear a recital you would play on one of our tours if you were to be a medalist.”
In short, the competitor is being tested on her or his knowledge of the repertoire as well as the ability to play it. And here, Armstrong has a savvy ally in Lotto. She advises him in choosing a program that follows an ascending pattern of keys: “Usually it seems to be better,” she explains, “if the pieces go up, whether it’s a minor or major that follows, whether it’s a half step, a whole step or a third.”
And though Armstrong’s own preference is for the darker middle-to-low tones of his left hand’s work, he knows “a hair-raising coda,” as he puts it, a knockout vivace, is what the audience wants to hear at the conclusion of a program. So, although the Liszt Ballade is “almost impossible to follow with anything,” the Prokofiev is in place on his semifinals program for just that lift.
As in past years, the competitors will stay with host families in Fort Worth- host families who know how to disappear, leaving behind only big pianos and well-stocked refrigerators. For the first time, however, thanks to a special sponsorship by American Airlines, the trip to Fort Worth will be paid for all 36 competitors. But for an American competitor who lives in New York, can a mere flight ticket possibly mean so much?
Take a look at Armstrong’s apartment- he doesn’t even own his own piano.
ANDREW IS THE SON OF THOMAS Armstrong, a computer consultant, and Judy, a housewife, of New Canaan, Connecticut. One of five children, Andrew got so jealous of his sisters’ and brothers’ tinkling of the ivories that he started messing around on the keyboard.
His dad, also a pianist, took the 7-year-old’s musical explorations in hand and got him to a local teacher named Bebe H. Rodde. “She could help me know how beautiful it was, what Rubenstein was doing on a record, but when I’d say, ’But how can I do that?’ she didn’t know-Ms. Rodde was really a singing teacher, not piano.”
About five years ago, Richard Serbagi, New Canaan High’s orchestra director took Armstrong to New York. “I’d only been to the city once,” Armstrong says, “when I was 8. To see the Harlem Globetrotters. It was great. But this time-Mr. Serbagi took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to a concert by the Soviet Emigre Orchestra.”
And to an audition. Serbagi had arranged for Armstrong to play for Lotto. It was hardly the thunderclap of prodigious discovery you might expect.
“His shoulders were up around his ears,” Lotto says. “His elbows were out here. He was sway-backed on the bench. His wrists were like this,” she demonstrates a sagging keyboard technique that could scare a carpal-tunnel syndrome patient at 20 paces.
“And he was practicing 45 minutes a day. I put him on three hours a day.”
“Well, she thought she did,” Armstrong hangs his head.
“What I found out,” Lotto puffs up like an enraged mother hen at the memory, “was that he was hardly doing half that. I knew something wasn’t working. So after six months, in front of the whole family, I just said, “Look, you’re going to have to do this or not. Which will it be?’ Because as I tell all my students, if there’s anything else you can stand to do than the piano, then do it. This is too hard for anybody who might not have to do it.”
Armstrong had to. Under Lotto’s loving admonishments-“she always stands up for her students offstage, but behind that closed door it’s a different story”-his last defenses against his talent collapsed. By the time he’d reached junior high school, he was a competition pianist.
The incredibly modest spinet that came with his borrowed Upper West Side apartment has a chair in which Armstrong now sits for up to seven hours of practice a day. A red sweatshirt is tied around the chair’s back forming a pouch. It holds a hardbound copy of Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.
“My lower back was killing me, I had to rig something up,” says this kid who once wanted to play basketball like die Detroit Pistons.
“Now, I’ve got ail my students tying books to their chairs with sweatshirts,” says Lotto. “Great for their backs. The Armstrong Method.”
Armstrong studies with Lotto at Scarsdale’s enormous Hoff-Barthelson Music School, which has as many as 1,600 students in all its programs and a staff of up to 75 teachers. Armstrong is definitely the Favorite Son, and Lotto, the Master Teacher. She has some 35 students. No more than 10 of them, she says, are “good ones.” The best of the best are called “a possible Andy,” “maybe a third Andy” and “rising Andys.”
So important to Hoff-Barthelson is Armstrong that the school promised to install a Steinway grand in place of the spinet in his apartment. This will be the practice center for his coming Van Cliburn Competition ordeal. Lotto will have him work backward, starting by learning the concertos, then the quintet, then working his solo program-this way, as he progresses through the stages of competition, he’ll be better prepared.
Armstrong hopes someday to take over the lease of his apartment, which is near Columbia University. He entered as a freshman last fall, only to find its music school so limited that the best practice piano was 40 blocks south of his apartment, at 74th Street.
“And my courses! They make my practicing too irregular. I’ll do six or seven hours one day on the piano, then go to literature class and find out I’ve got to read Dante’s inferno or King Lear and I’ll spend a whole day trying to catch up on that.”
Only one of his teachers and virtually none of his fellow students at Columbia know that Armstrong is an internationally applauded pianist who already has played in China with the Shanghai Symphony, in Tokyo’s Kinzoku Hall, in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, in Oberlin’s Warner Hall, Yale’s Woolsey Hall, Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall and Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
In March, precisely as the nightmare winter storm swept its way up the East Coast, Armstrong was at the Kennedy Center, taking third place in the Washington International. Second place was won by a pianist 10 years his senior. First was given to a pianist 12 years older.
Armstrong is putting himself through college on prize money. And the wins roll across his résumé like notes on a page of Chopin-the New York Federation of Music Clubs, the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competition, the Renee Fisher Competition, the Kingsville International Performer’s Competition, the Great Neck Young Musicians’ Competition, North Texas’ own Richardson Symphony’s Concerto Competition, and on and on. They’re all frist-prize wins. Or grand prize.
Look at hi:, hands. Not remarkable. The fingers aren’t overly long. The only distinguishing facet, he points out, is that there’s maybe a little more skin, a little more webbing, between the thumbs and forefingers-good for the octave stretch.
But he’s more interested in something even harder to see. “We’re working the hardest,” he says, sitting by Lotto on the beige couch in his apartment, “on the very end of the fingers, this last joint. The touch.”
Such subtlety, the magic of a soft touch, is prized by the precocious Armstrong.
“I told my lit teacher that I’ve gotten into something sort of big, although I didn’t tell him it’s the Van Cliburn. My teacher said I hat he’s pleased for me personally but that it didn’t matter-I still have to do the reading for the class.”
VAN CLIBURN WAS 23 WHEN HE WAS catapulted to fame by winning the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
As Armstrong’s father was his first teacher, Cliburn’s mother, Rildia Bee, was his. She handled his instruction until he entered Juilliard at age 17. Where Armstrong won his first competition at 14, Cliburn took a statewide competition in Texas at age 12 and was awarded an orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony.
Though frequently reclusive, Cliburn has been a gonerous benefactor of young artists’ careers, providing scholarships at Juilliard, the Cincinnati Conservatory, TCU, Louisiana State, Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy and the Moscow and St. Petersburg conservatories. The Van Cliburn competition, which was created in his honor, has become an anticipated event worldwide, dedicated to the discovery of the finest and most prodigious young pianists.
And just to be among the vaunted 36 competitors, Armstrong says with characteristic wisdom, “has made me know that I can make a living in music,” even if no more medals come his way. “I also can come back arid try again” in future competitions. The cut-off age is 35.
But as important as his technique. Lotto will tell you, s his spirit. The “pure Andy” that makes his playing so remarkable, so rigorously, luxuriantly personable, such an unforgettable thing to hear simply might cinch the competition for him. This kind of interpretive genius is the real rarity.
Should the sold be his destiny this June, the soul of this soft-spoken young man will be no doubt lifted but still tempered by a sometimes saddening grace. Generally, Armstrong looks like a happy enough kid, as when he tears into some white wine chicken at a small Italian bistro near his apartment on upper Broadway. But there’s always something quietly meditative, even obsessive-his search for himself in the music-going on underneath. So immersed in his identity as a pianist is he that he recalls the stages of his life in terms of career movements and the challenges of his career in terms of personal growth.
“I used to turn my head to the right all the time when I played,” he says. “But now I’m working on turning it left,” so he’ll still have his ear to the keyboard but his face will be turned away from the audience.
“If I’m looking at the audience, I’m too aware they’re there. I need to avoid performance. I need to be there for the music. That’s why I can’t get worried about whether I’m bowing the right way when people tell me my bows are bad. Or my posture. Somebody’s always complaining about my posture.”
Such complaints can have a silver lining. One woman who heard him play in Yonkers, first lectured him about his posture and then sent him a check-no strings attached, nothing asked in return, she simply wanted to contribute to his career.
What Armstrong is always ready to complain about is me traditional tuxedo or black suit in which pianists perform. “Obviously, the arms can be too tight,” he says. “And it’s hot. And I hate ties, that’s the first thing I take off after a concert- you can’t breathe. But there’s also the bottom hem of the jacket. You sit down, you get the bottom of the coat out of your way. But as soon as you lift up a little to reach some keys, then you sit back down and the hem is caught under you. So it’s even harder to reach the keys.”
Even such ungainly clothes, though, don’t make the man.
“The thing is,” he’s saying, “that so many of these pianists I meet in these competitions are so…” He doesn’t want to say the word cutthroat. It seems too critical of him to level such a charge, however accurate. “I mean, we’re all musicians. We should get along, support each other. Inevitably the nicer they are, the better they play, you can just tell how good they’re going to be from their personality. Of course, they aren’t always the ones who win.”
Giggling while pointing out his living room’s Hudson River view “if you just knock down those buildings over there,” and standing by a kitchen table strewn with loose change, sheet music and competition application forms, Armstrong merrily rolls his green-blue eyes that are oddly wide, almost disturbingly dark. They’re dilated to an unusual width, receptive to all sights, peripherally accurate from one end of the keyboard to the other while focused inexorably on the endless march of notes up and down the staves on the page.
Before letting in a visitor-before undoing one thumb-bolt, another thumb-bolt, then an iron bar wedged between the inside of the apartment door and the floor-he switches off a CD he’s listening to, Prokofiev himself playing his own astonishing Piano Concerto no. 3. This isn’t the standard MTV-watching American youth. For all his easy conversation and strikingly smooth manners, Armstrong is nobody’s mainstream teen-his art, even now, has claimed him as its own.
“The last time I had any social life at all,” he says, “was my junior year in high school.
“I don’t miss it, really.”
He knows he’s lucky to have such a self-defining thing in his life as his gift for piano. “So many other people,” he says, “I think they’re socializing just to try to decide who they are, because they don’t have anything else. I don’t have to do that.”
And how can he handle the crashing pressure of trying to make 88 keys commune with him in a way that can nab him the Van Cliburn Foundation’s already-booked tour of worldwide concerts? What do you do when such high stakes are at your fingertips?
“Well, I do keep my music nearby, just behind the curtain,” he confesses, “just so I know it’s there in my mind-I’m always afraid I’ll forget something.
“But, really, I just tell myself that I want to enjoy every note that goes by, every note I play. If I’ve done the work before I play, there’s no need to worry. I know I’ve done it right if I start a little nervous, then. as I work on doing just what I want to do each step of the way, I’m fine, I’m into it.”
The television cameras are zooming in on Fort Worth, the aficionados are flying in from around the world, the jury is bracing itself to make unremitting demands on each competitor, the critics are reaching for their notebooks, and those eight mighty grand pianos are coasting into position: The Ninth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has brought its global summit of performance competition, once more, into terrifying, brilliant session.
Armstrong is unfazed.
“I’m not going to give up a single thing to nervousness.
“I want every note.”