Kit Armstrong is a notable pianist at age 13

Teenager who composed his first piano sonata at 6 and attended college at 7 performs with BSO

June 10, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

For a quick lesson in humility, scan the resume of Kit Armstrong:

began studying piano and composition at age 5;

composed first piano sonata at 6;

attended high school and college (Chapman University in California, taking physics and composition) at 7;

composed his first symphony at 8;

enrolled as a full-time student at Utah State University, studying mathematics, biology, genetics, physics and music, at 9;

admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music at 11 and also studied math and chemistry at University of Pennsylvania;

at 12, transferred to the Royal Academy of Music in London and, to continue his math studies, the Imperial College.

Last night, at the ripe age of 13, the California-born Kit made his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 at the Music Center at Strathmore in a program to be repeated this weekend at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"He's a wonder, this guy, a miracle," says Arild Remmereit, the Norwegian conductor on the BSO podium for these concerts.

One of Kit's piano teachers at the Curtis Institute couldn't agree more.

"I've heard a lot of gifted kids," says Eleanor Sokoloff, who has been on the faculty there for 70 years. "And I believe this is a true genius. His capacity for understanding the music is so remarkable."

With that kind of praise and that list of accomplishments, not to mention management from ICM (one of the industry's highest-profile artist agencies), you might expect Kit to reveal an Arnold Schwarzenegger-size ego. But there doesn't seem to be an attitudinal bone in the diminutive, soft-spoken pianist.

Walking onstage for his first rehearsal with the BSO in a black shirt, pants and white sneakers, he greets Remmereit and the musicians with a shy smile and bow.

Perched on the edge of the piano bench, his feet just touching the pedals, he articulates with a light, clear and elegant tone. When Remmereit asks him to repeat a few passages to get the timing even tighter, Kit responds eagerly.

After the rehearsal, he jumps up like a - well, a kid - to acknowledge the orchestra's hearty applause and then runs off to find his mother in the hall.

"He's happy whenever he can play," May Armstrong says as Kit bounds toward her. "He loves every aspect of a performance."

An only child, Kit grew up without any music at first. "We didn't even have a CD player," his mother says. (The boy's father is "not in the picture at all," she says.)

Kit's unusually keen mind manifested itself first through numbers - he mastered basic math concepts at 12 months. "I think my interest in music was quite sudden," he says in a gentle voice, with the faintest hint of a British accent. "I don't remember what started it."

He taught himself to read and write music by consulting an encyclopedia when he was 5, which prompted his mother to find music teachers for him.

The boy's pet chickens, all named for chemical elements, helped inspire him to compose. "Chickens are very musical," he says. "They would come up to the window like they were sitting at a concert, when I played."

His first substantial piece is called the Chicken Sonata. (Two pets, Carbon and Nitrogen, remain at his California home.)

Kit, who has won several awards for young composers, writes in a variety of styles, from neoclassical to atonal, and genres. "The compositions are wonderful," Sokoloff says.

As a pianist, Kit's repertoire ranges from Bach to Debussy. He plans to learn all the Mozart piano concertos by 2006, the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. "I know 11," he says, "so I have 10 to go."

Next season's concert engagements include a Mozart concerto in Paris and a solo recital in Baltimore for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. "He's got the aura of someone who's going to be something special," says Shriver director Sel Kardan.

Children with technical proficiency at the keyboard are not terribly rare, but they have been known to burn out before adulthood and, sometimes, develop personality problems.

"It's very easy to exploit this gift," Sokoloff says. "But Kit has a good mother and an excellent manager who's protecting him. Kit's a lovely kid, as nice as he can be."

For his part, the young pianist seems about as normal as an uncommonly talented boy could be. "I don't mind that people keep using the word `prodigy,' if they pronounce it properly," he says, grinning. "One news station called me a `progidy.'"

As for the future, Kit expects to devote roughly equal attention to piano playing and composing, taking time out along the way for such favorite pastimes as tennis and origami - and one more pursuit.

"I'm hoping to pick up a degree," he says.

Turns out that despite the extensive study, Kit hasn't received a diploma from any school. "Not even kindergarten," his mother says with a laugh. "He was too young to take the high school equivalency test."

BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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