[Scene Magazine] Closing with a Grand Concerto and a Grand Cellist
Cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio solos in the Santa Barbara Symphony's season-closing program, with a Dvorak Concerto
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
If the name Sara Sant'Ambrogio rings a bell with classical music fans, it is most likely in her best-known context and co-brainchild, as one-third of the all-female chamber music sensation, the Eroica Trio. Going back to the early '90s, this impressive piano trio — which has played in Santa Barbara in years past — has dazzled critics and audiences alike, and effectively helped to break down stubborn gender barriers, while not incidentally also making no attempt to sidestep the feminine beauty factor of the participants.
This weekend, as part of the Santa Barbara Symphony's season-closing program, Ms. Sant'Ambrogio shifts roles when she appears as the spotlight-centered soloist, while working with a vastly larger ensemble. She will take on the beloved Dvorak Concert for Cello, in a diverse set of music, also including the piece "Akeda (The Sacrifice of Isaac)" by Noam Sheriff (a mentor of the orchestra's maestro Nir Kabaretti), and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony to end the show, and an all-around fine season.
We recently checked in with Ms. Sant'Ambrogio, a versatile and curious musician whose resume also includes work with Sting, Rufus Wainwright, premiering contemporary works, and dishing up a bittersweet cello version of "Summertime" in a sultry/retro video (consult your local YouTube).
News-Press: In Santa Barbara, you will be featured on the Dvorak Concerto. Is this a piece you have a kind of deep and long relationship with? Does it have special meaning for you?
Sara Sant'Ambrogio: I absolutely adore this concerto. It has the perfect blend of passion, pathos, joy and romance.
The first time I played it is a very special memory for me. I had just arrived at the Juilliard School to study with Leonard Rose, who had been my father's teacher. I was living at a YMCA, which was the only place I could afford to live in NYC. The pay phone on my floor rang and it was Mr. Rose asking me to fill in for him with two concerts of the Dvorak concerto the next month.
I had just come in for my first lesson with him on Dvorak the day before so I was bowled over by his faith in me, let alone the idea of my idol calling me on a pay phone. I had just won the Juilliard competition to play the Schumann Cello Concerto at Lincoln Center the week before, so it was a very exciting time preparing for both my first Lincoln Center performance on Schumann, and my first Dvorak concerto performances simultaneously.
Nothing like diving into a career head first.
NP: Is there a distinct pleasure or sensation in playing in concerto mode, as someone who has worked extensively in more intimate settings, as with the Eroica Trio? Does it require a different mindset to play as orchestral soloist?
SS: I do feel that I have a different mindset when I play a concerto. It feels very heroic when you are this lone voice soaring on top of this lush wave of orchestral sound. I think of each piece of music as a story and in a concerto I feel more like the hero, the main character, that the listener can identify with and travel through the story arc with.
NP: I was thinking you came up with orchestras in your life, as your father was the principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony. Was it always a natural move for you to take up the cello, and have that as the vehicle of your life's work, from an early age?
SS: It was either destiny or density. Everyone in my family, for quite a few generations, has been musicians. I had a little blip in my early teens where I tried to figure out if it was my passion or my family's, but without the cello I just didn't feel whole. It felt like a part of me was missing and my voice was lost. The world felt darker to me without the joy of music and I have never regretted finding my way home to music again.
NP: The Eroica Trio has been such a great advocate and success story within chamber music, and a bold statement, in a sense, with its all-female membership. Was there a sense within the trio of what you wanted to achieve and how you wanted to present yourself and the repertoire from the beginning? And has its success been a rewarding validation?
SS: It has been extraordinary how many women have come up in chamber music since we broke that glass ceiling. It definitely feels good to have leveled that playing field and it has made chamber music a far richer landscape now that we have all voices being heard.
We didn't set out to do that though. We just loved playing together at a very young age — the pianist and I started playing together at age 12, and really wanted to do whatever it took to be able to continue playing music together. We also wanted to expand the repertoire for the piano trio because we so loved that combination of instruments. So commissioning new works and resurrecting old forgotten jewels became a sort of mission for us.
NP: And now you are working with the Eroica Duo. Did that evolve organically out of the trio?
SS: Yes, Eroica Duo has been playing together since we were 12. We just didn't get around to "naming" ourselves until more recently. Erika, the pianist, and I have played thousands of concerts together from such a young age that we are almost telepathic in our communication. That gives you an enormous freedom on stage to really live on the edge, because you trust your partner so completely to know where you are going at every moment.
NP: You have gravitated, perhaps inevitably, toward the Bach Cello Suites, one of the landmark works of solo instrumental writing, and of the cello world, in performance with the New York City Ballet. Do you hold the view of that music as a sort of foundation or bedrock in the cello repertoire, and in your personal musical world?
SS: Absolutely. I think most musicians could easily say that all music comes from Bach. I have loved Bach since I started playing his keyboard music at age four. The suites are so extraordinary in that they were not ever played in public until the 20th century and there is no manuscript that has survived, so it is really a lifelong detective journey that one embarks upon as a cellist when you begin to delve into them.
I love Bach so much, I named my son Sebastian Jonathan. And yes, he absolutely loves playing Bach, and the blues. Recording the suites was like climbing Mount Everest, it was sublime.
NP: You have covered such a broad swath of musical terrain, from orchestral and chamber music to premiering contemporary works, and also including Sting, Rufus Wainwright and the band VAST on your resume. Does that all add up the kind of diversified musical life you see as true to your sense of who you are, as a musician?
SS: Very much so. I really feel that, as an artist, I crave constantly stretching myself creatively. I learn so much as an artist and as a human being in each different musical setting. I always want to feel that perfection is just out of my reach and if I listen harder, feel more deeply, try more vigorously that I may be able to just brush my fingers against it at some point.
When I play the Bach solo suites it makes my Dvorak concerto better, when I play with Sting it makes my Eroica Trio playing better. I learn so much from all the musicians I hear or play with regardless of the genre.
NP: Do you generally have open ears to a wide variety of music, as a listener and potentially as participant?
SS: Yes, I love all types of music and funny enough, I often think to myself, "Wow, a cello would sound fantastic there!" I'm always looking for different ways to express the voice of the cello. I love that Stravinsky quote, "Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal." Ha ha! I borrow and steal a lot of music that I think would sound great on the cello.
NP: Having been deeply engaged in classical music for as long as you have, how have you seen this music's public awareness and appreciation change over the years? Despite sometimes dour analyses and musical institutions coming under economic fire, is the music and its audience strong at the moment?
SS: There is nothing defeated or apathetic about classical music and our audience. The ways that we reach listeners are multiplying, which is a wonderful thing that I think we can build on. It inspires and shows us the greatness of mankind. It expresses the inexpressible. It soothes our soul when nothing else can and fills us with joy.
I feel that, now more than ever, we need great classical music. I do feel that we need to get more music into the schools. We need to excite kids about the passion and joy that classical music gives you so that it can become one of many tools in their arsenal of happiness for the rest of their lives. If they never have a chance to hear it until their musical tastes are set, then it is not only more difficult to get them to open their hearts to it, but leaves their lives a little duller and less rich, which makes me sad.
NP: What projects do you have coming up that excite you?
SS: The Eroica Trio has two new recital pieces we are premiering next season, by Michael Torke and Bruce Wolosoff, and a fantastic new concerto for trio and bandoneon is being written right now by a protege of Piazzolla, Daniel Binelli, which we are totally psyched about. I'm working on a Latin album with a number of different instruments and also an album of American jazz standards for cello and jazz trio, which I'm very excited about.
I have a new cello concerto being written for me this summer by Bruce Wolosoff and I'm working on a TV show as well. When I have a few moments free late at night I work on a novel I'm writing. So I'm pretty stoked about what is on my plate for the next year or so.
NP: Overall, are you happy with the balance of musical projects you have going in this phase of your musical journey?
SS: Yes, but I am always on the lookout for my next inspiration. One of the most wonderful things about playing an instrument is that every day I wake up, if I practice, I know I will get better that day. That thought really makes me jump out of bed each day.