School’s been in session just weeks, so a few eyebrows arched at the appearance of Ein Heldenleben on the Curtis Institute of Music’s first orchestra concert of the season. The score, treacherous and sophisticated, should come with skull and crossbones and the words nicht fur Kinder on the cover.
When Carlos Miguel Prieto led the ensemble in the Strauss workout Monday night in Verizon Hall, eyebrows were raised — not in doubt, but with awe. The work features intermittent but extended violin solos, played here by concertmaster Nigel Armstrong. Just getting through the part grants exoneration in the violin world. But Armstrong, 22, a second-year Curtis student, played at a level so highly developed it would have brought honor to any professional orchestra.
It wasn’t about technique, though that’s firmly in place. His was a real interpretation, with shape and purpose, minute manipulation of pitch and time, and fine gradations of bow speed. And then there was the sound. Armstrong — from Sonoma, Calif. — used a Guadagnini willed to the school by pedagogue Veda Reynolds. It was no doubt partly responsible for the throaty low register, responsiveness and penetrating-but-sweet upper notes. But in Armstrong, it had a natural partner able to make it ring.
When one player sets this kind of standard, it throws down the gauntlet for the rest. Of particular pleasure were a buoyant clarinet solo and a warmly reassuring timpanist. The horns — well, for them it was a growth experience. Prieto sped through the opening heroism; he resisted making mountains out of molehills emotionally. Sentiment was present, but only sometimes, which made it all the more meaningful when he did stretch a moment or build to a climax.