ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!!!
Ms. Sant'Ambrogio started cello studies with her father John Sant'Ambrogio, principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony, and at the age of 16 was invited on full scholarship to study with David Soyer at the Curtis Institute of Music. Three years later world renowned cellist Leonard Rose invited Ms. Sant'Ambrogio to study at The Juilliard School; within weeks of arriving, she won the all-Julliard Schumann Cello Concerto Competition, resulting in her first performance at Lincoln Center.
Ms. Sant'Ambrogio has won numerous international competitions, including The Whitaker, Dealy, Artists International, and Palm Beach competitions, and the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music Competition with her chamber ensemble, Eroica Trio. Ms. Sant'Ambrogio won a Grammy Award for her performance of Bernstein's "Arias and Barcarolles" on Koch records and released in Fall 2004 a solo album entitled "Dreaming" on Sebastian Records. Ms. Sant'Ambrogio was featured on the Blue Note album debut of singer Angela McCluskey, which was released in 2004. Ms. Sant'Ambrogio has been profiled in Glamour, Vogue, Elle, In Fashion, Bon Appetit, Detour, Strings, Gramophone, Travel and Leisure, Fanfare and Swing magazines, as well as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CBS, ABC, PBS, Fox, USA and CNN networks.
Ms. Sant'Ambrogio is the subject of a feature length documentary, which had multiple airings nationwide on PBS in 2003-2004.
TJ: Where does the name "Sant'Ambrogio" come from?
SS: It's Italian. Sant'Ambrogio was the patron saint of the arts in Milan. I come from a lineage of Italian musicians that reaches back several hundred years. As far as I know, each generation had a professional musician.
My immediate family is full of musicians too. My father, John Sant'Ambrogio, is principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony and my older sister, Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio, is concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony.
My grandmother, Isabelle Sant'Ambrogio, was a concert pianist. She also founded a well-known music camp in the Berkshire Mountains --Red Fox Music Camp -- which ran for twenty five years. Earlier in my professional career it seemed like half the musicians in the orchestras I soloed with had gone to that camp and remembered me as the little baby who had been crawling around. I remember a conductor once said to me, "The last time I saw you, you were nakedů." He had met me at Red Fox when I was five months old.
My grandmother was a respected piano pedagogue as well. She taught in the old fashioned style in that she would have her most talented student live with her so that she could influence the child about more than just the piano. She would talk about art, history, and life in general. She actually taught the pianist in the Eroica Trio, Erika Nickrenz, when Erika was 12 years old. That's when Erika and I began playing together, even though we had met long before then.
My grandfather was a violinist and violist. He was a violist in Joseph Gingold's quartet, and Gingold was the best man at my grandparents' wedding. I first learned of this after Gingold judged a competition that I had entered when I was 17. Gingold said, "Your grandfather was a good violinist, but he was the best violist I had ever heard. When he quit the quartet, I swore that I wouldn't play quartets again because I would never find a violist as good as him." My grandfather left the group because he wanted to be a violinist!
Some people are just born with a sound, I think, like I was clearly born with a cello sound, even though I started out on piano and my parents tried to give me a violin. I just wasn't a violinist and I would never been a good one. Luckily I was headstrong enough at four years old to give the violin to my older sister, who ended up being a professional violinist. I stuck with the piano until my parents finally gave me a cello when I was six.
Was your mother a musician?
She was not a professional musician, though she was my first piano teacher. She was a very good pianist and singer, but she was more interested in other things. She was an art history teacher.
You must have a nicely balanced upbringing.
My family was very much about learning. Art and history were revered subjects and were treated as topics that were exciting and relevant.
I feel very fortunate to have had this background, especially since I went to a really bad school in a tough ghetto neighborhood. I spent a lot of time thinking about how not to get beat up every day instead of concentrating on my classes. At the same time, my school was a great environment in many ways because I had first hand experience of what it's like to be a minority and how difficult it is to fit in an alien culture. The contrast between the world inside and outside my home was striking and was fodder for many interesting conversations at home.
Your father was your cello teacher for ten years. Studying with one's parent is usually complicated.
It went great with us. I had already been playing piano for four years when I began cello lessons with him, so I had a sense of myself as a musician, which was pretty clear to anyone who heard me. He recognized this, so there wasn't that typical struggle where a teacher tries to force his or her personal approach on a student's undefined personality. There's that tense moment when the child starts to recognize his or her own identity and tries to break away. Things can get pretty ugly.
This didn't happen between my father and me because right from the start it was clear that I was a very different artist than him. Our lessons were fun because they were very much driven by me. I would ask him for a lesson. We didn't have lessons every week; sometimes they'd be every three or four weeks and they would go on for hours. If I was having a problem with a fingering, he'd ask me what I thought about various fingerings. Our lessons were more of a give and take relationship.
According to my dad, I'd usually let him have his say about some new concept that he wanted to convey. I'd try it a couple of times and say, "OK, what's next?" He'd say, "No, no, no, I want to work on it with you." I'd reply, "No, you go do something else or let's move on. I'll work on it by myself." He'd try to get me to do it for him but I'd refuse. Then I'd start laughing and poking him with my bow and he'd give up. He soon discovered that I was actually filing away his advice and he'd hear me working on it for the next few days. He accepted that I had my own process and he learned to trust that I would follow through on our lessons. Our personalities counterbalanced each other perfectly.
Now he asks advice from me occasionally. The last time we saw each other, he had been listening to my album, Dreaming, and he wondered how I did a certain slide. We sat down for the next thirty minutes and deconstructed slides. I'm very fortunate because I never felt that he was competitive with me in any way, ever. He always made me feel like I was every bit as unique and as good as him, and he respected me enough to allow me to follow my own path. He's constantly telling people that I'm ten times better than him and that I teach him now.
I discovered the downside of our give-and-take relationship when I went to the Curtis Institute at age sixteen to study with Guarneri Quartet cellist David Soyer. I soon found out that other teachers don't appreciate their student's being so independent minded. I'm convinced that Mr. Soyer wanted to kill me during our first lesson. He'd give me a fingering and I would go, "Hmm. That's good, but I like mine better." You should have seen the look on his face. He didn't know what hit him! As you can imagine, we had a very stormy relationship. Maybe my dad should have given me a heads up about the dynamic of a formal learning situation!
Your dad must have started you off right in terms of the technical basics.
My dad is brilliant at that sort of thing. He's relentlessly vigilant about making sure his students are given the proper technical foundation. I can always tell which students studied with him because they're so technically even across the board; both the bow arm and left hand are equally developed. Other teachers' students will often excel in certain aspects of technique and be way behind in others. Not so with my dad's students.
I almost never take children as students because I don't have the kind of patience it takes to drill them in order to get every area of technique up to a certain level. I love getting my dad's students just as they begin adolescence because all the hard work has been done by him. The students have the basics down already, so I can fine tune them and get them to think for themselves. I also enjoy getting them excited about all the colors they can make with their instruments as well as the feelings and passion they can express through music.
Was there a particular point where you found yourself emotionally connecting with the cello?
Yes. It happened when I was six or seven years old and I was playing The Swan. I had seen a movie about two star-crossed lovers. She was wearing some sort of Arabic costume and she was in prison. Her lover was outside the prison and she was trying to slip through the bars to be with him. Later, as I was playing The Swan I starting thinking about these two people being apart and how she was going to die if they didn't get together and how sad the situation was. I then started thinking about the piece I was playing, and that swans mate for life. I imagined a swan waiting and waiting for its mate to return and that the other one wasn't coming back because it was dead. I was becoming incredibly sad as I played when all of a sudden I realized everybody in the living room had stopped what they were doing and were staring at me. I had a realization that emotion can be put into music and that others can hear it when I do it. It's not just an internal experience.
I now mention this to students all the time. I tell them that they should just think about how the music makes them feel before they start playing. If they're conscious of it, it will come through in their performance. It really works!
I also emphasize that one should be so technically secure that technique is not a distraction. When this is achieved the focus should be on infusing each phrase with as clear an emotion as possible. Technique is merely a means to an end, not the end.
Did your father run you through the standard technical regimen, like the Popper Etudes?
No, I didn't do that until I studied with David Soyer at Curtis. Soyer was horrified that I hadn't played any etudes whatsoever. I hated etudes and I was very headstrong. This was a problem when I studied with my father because I wouldn't practice them. Instead, my father would pull out sections from concertos that had certain technical hurdles and ask me to practice them. This worked out very well because I found it exciting to be playing something from the Dvorak Concerto, for instance. I was extremely motivated to practice these excerpts. Also, when it came time to study the Dvorak Concerto as a whole, I had already mastered some of the more difficult parts. In fact, these excerpts were often the more solid parts for me.
Interestingly, this method didn't work with my sister at all, which I attribute to the difference in our personalities. Like my father, she preferred a more methodical approach. Perhaps this has something to do with why they both became orchestral players.
How long did you study with David Soyer?
I was with him for three years. As I mentioned earlier, we had a very different teacher relationship than I was used to but I learned a lot from him. You could tell that he was greatly influenced by Casals by the way he hit the strings percussively when he brought his left hand fingers down on the fingerboard, and how he slightly plucked the strings when he lifted them off. You can hear him do this on recordings. He wanted me to do it too and he had me play scales without a bow, going pluck, hit, pluck, hit, pluck, hitů.
He then asked which Popper Etudes I knew. I told him just the one I auditioned with. I had picked the one that I thought was the prettiest, Number 34. He was horrified and assigned me twenty pages of etudes immediately. He eventually ran me through the Duport and the Piatti and Paganini Caprices too.
Did Soyer ever share stories about Casals in order to inspire you?
No, he actually shared stories about Diran Alexanian, who was supposedly a very difficult person. I have a feeling he did this because he thought people had let me run wild for too long and he wanted to give me some discipline. He also knew that I had no idea how I played the cello so well and he wanted to deconstruct me and re-form me systematically into how he thought the cello should be played. What happened instead was that I rebuilt myself and played exactly the same way I always did, though now, because of his teaching, I know exactly how I do it.
This has come in handy when I've injured myself. I broke my elbow several years ago and fractured my middle finger a few years later, just before I had to record the Beethoven Triple with the Eroica Trio. Part of why I've been able to play through these injuries is that I understand completely how I play the cello. I can consciously adjust certain things in order to give an injury a rest without throwing my technique off.
You studied with Leonard Rose after David Soyer. How long did you study with Rose?
I was with him during the last two years of his life. My father had studied with him too. Rose was a truly wonderful teacher and he provided exactly what I needed at the time. Interestingly, he made only one comment about my bow arm in my first lesson and never mentioned it again. He told me that I shouldn't attack from above the strings unless I really want the sound of that particular attack. He told me to put the bow on the string instead and to pop it.
Rose was right, of course. I realized that I had gotten into a bit of an unconscious habit of attacking the strings from above, partly because I had been playing on a $500 cello and I felt like I had to beat the crap out the strings. But I was being sloppy and I was not in complete control of every single sound that I was making on my cello.
He said another helpful thing to me once when I was playing the Prelude and Fugue of the Fifth Suite. He said, "You're thinking of it in eight, aren't you? Try thinking of it in four instead." That made all the difference because I extrapolated a far greater meaning from his advice. Most of the time it's better if one thinks in terms of larger beats. The music flows much better if you do.
He was an excellent musical gauge for me. I knew that I was a slightly more romantic and emotional player than he was. He was such a consistent musician that if played in a manner that he thought was perfect, I knew I could push a little further. If he thought my playing was a little over the top, I could trust that it was just about right. That sort of feedback was invaluable.
Was there a recurrent theme in Rose's discussions about music?
His task was to give me the confidence to express myself more than to give me musical feedback. I remember going to a lesson to play the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata for him. I started the lesson by enthusing about his recording of the Arpeggione with Leonid Hambro, telling him it was the most amazing recording I had heard in my life. He said in his elegant way, "I remember recording that album. After we ran through the first movement, I felt it was a click too slow, so we went back and recorded it again in one take." I was absolutely stunned. I began playing the piece for him and he started dancing around the room. Then he started crying as I was playing the second movement, which gave me a huge confidence boost. He helped me to be me better instead of making me play like him. He helped me play better in the way I wanted to play. It takes a special person to be able to do that.
I actually started with the Arpeggione in my New York debut at Carnegie. Rose begged me not to do it because he thought it was career suicide. He would never start his own concerts with a piece like that because he used to get too nervous. I, on the other hand, have always felt great starting with a piece that I'm absolutely in love with. I figure that if I can do well with a piece like the Arpeggione, I can do anything afterwards.
This reminds me of the contrast between David Soyer and Rose. Soyer once told me something that I think he meant to shock me with, though I took it as a great compliment. He said, "You may be able to play anything on the cello, but you don't know the first thing about music." I replied, radiantly, "Thank you!" I don't think that was the reaction he was looking for As far as I was concerned, that was the nicest thing anybody had said to me. Others had always told me that I was very musical but I needed to practice more.
Rose, on the other hand, wanted to play up my technical prowess. He made sure that I had something really showy, like a Paganini Caprice, on every recital program. He said, "You're so musical. If you don't rub their noses in the fact that you have a great technique, they are going to assume that you are 'just musical,' and they will jump on any slight faltering." I wanted to play the 24th Paganini Caprice in my New York debut but that was more than he could take. The Arpeggione was plenty. He put his foot down and I ended up playing the Moses Fantasy instead, which, in retrospect, was definitely a better choice. Rose wanted to make sure that I was in the driver's seat at every moment, which meant making sure I tackled challenges I was able to handle.
Between 16 and 20 years old, I was at the stage in my life when I was transitioning from relying on my natural talent to get through just about anything -- even the 10% of the time when I should have crashed and burned but didn't -- to being completely in charge at all moments, both technically and musically. Soyer was got my left hand in shape and Rose worked on my self confidence. They both did great things for me and I hear their voices to this day.
You also studied chamber music with Felix Galimir?
Yes, an unbelievable amount. I studied with him when I was at Curtis. He would teach all day on Monday and half a day on Tuesday and I would be in five or six groups. This meant that his classes were almost like the "Sara Sant'Ambrogio Show" at times. I simply had to be in his lessons.
People had warned me about Galimir, telling me that he yelled at everybody. I was terrified when I first walked in. I realized that he screamed because he got excited about the music and I loved his passion and enthusiasm. I still think he was extraordinary and had a special talent for getting right to the heart of the music and for understanding how a phrase is constructed.
I played an incredible amount of music with him, not only because of my time at Curtis, but because I spent three summers with him at the Marlboro Music Festival. I also toured with him as part of the 'Musicians from Marlboro' series. He always played the second violin part in these groups. We ran through the Berg, Webern, Schoenberg, and some Bartok Quartets, in addition to lots of Classical repertoire.
I remember he said something interesting about a quartet from the 2nd Viennese School. It might have been the Berg Op. 3 Quartet. He said, "It's so romantic, it's almost unhealthy." I remember thinking that's exactly what it was. This truly crystallized the piece for me and I became very passionate about it from then on.
You won the Bronze Medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition. What pieces did you play?
We all had to play Rococo in the last round. We also played a piece that was supposedly written for the competition, the Krenikov Second Concerto. I received the part and piano reduction for the Krenikov a month before the competition. The Russian cellists, as always, had already performed the Krenikov with orchestra a year before. In fact, they had been working on the piece for four years prior to the competition. It was a totally totally ridiculous situation. Fortunately, I was good at putting pieces together quickly and I've always loved contemporary music and learning new musical languages. I didn't let the unfairness get me down.
Weren't you known for having an affinity for a certain contemporary piece for solo cello?
I wonder which piece that would be. I've played a lot of solo repertoire, such as the Lutoslawksy, Dutilleux, and Hindemith. People used to go bananas for my Crumb Sonata. I love that piece, but then again, what cellist doesn't?
I once did an entire recital tour with Bach, Cassado, Hindemith, Crumb, and a jazz piece. The day after each concert, I felt like I had lifted weights the night before. A two hour solo cello recital is incredibly intense and exhausting. I was thinking the other day that I'd like to do this again. Thanks to cellists like Casals and Rostropovich there is a ton of solo cello repertoire to explore.
I heard that the members of the Eroica Trio have known each other since childhood.
Erika Nickrenz (the pianist) and Adela Pena (the violinst) went to school and played music together when they were nine years old. Erika and I met when we were twelve years old and we started playing trios together with another violinist. A couple of years later I got kicked out of my family's music camp for breaking every rule possible and I had to find another music camp. I ended up going to Meadowmount and that's where Adela and I met and started playing together. The three of us had played together in various pairs, but never as a trio. We figured we should see how it was as a trio.
Years later our trio won the Naumburg Chamber Music Competition, which garnered us lots of attention. For some reason, the Naumburg seems to really help chamber music groups more than individual instrumentalists.
Do you feel like you are forging the way for other all-female groups?
We didn't feel this way when we first started playing together because we were children at the time. The fact that we became three women wasn't something we noticed, particularly, as we grew up. We simply liked each other and we liked playing together.
I must admit that in the beginning I preferred working with men because men don't talk about their feelings. Men are more cut and dried. They are all business.
We being women seems to have made us collectively stronger. We've been playing together for seventeen years without any personnel change. There's no other ensemble at the top of the field at this time that can say this. The Emerson String Quartet has changed members. The Guarneri String Quartet has changed members, though they had been together for something like thirty five years before there were changes. The Beaux Arts Trio has gone through several changes, including, soon, a new pianist.
The fact that we are three women became a big deal to others, though, so I started thinking, heck, if we're going to take some hits for this, we might as well forge the way for others who want to follow in our footsteps. I'm going to be really annoyed if twenty years from now I see other all-female groups encountering the same barriers that we've dealt with. I think we've broken down the stereotypes to some degree, even though reviewers still mention our looks. At this point, they may trash us for being attractive, but at least they admit that on musical merits alone we deserve to be where we are.
It sounds like you may have had enough of the "pretty girl" questions.
I'm not tired of it because it's very flattering. Speaking for myself, though, I don't see what others see when I look in the mirror. I'll just be happy if my grandchildren see a picture of me and go, "Not bad!" I don't take this stuff too seriously.
What do you see the roles being for each member in a piano trio?
We each alternate between the roles of soloist and rhythm section, which is why I love playing trios so much. Because of the piano, we will never meld the way a string quartet does, though the cello and violin sometimes work as one voice. In many ways the most exciting part for me is when I'm the safety net for the person with the solo part because I have to be so much more on my toes. There's an incredible amount of satisfaction that comes from being supportive in the perfect way so that the soloist is able to express what she wants to. It's also a great feeling when someone gets into trouble and I can swoop down and rescue them. Perhaps because of all the roles I play in a trio, I find that I can get into a zone more often than when I am a soloist with orchestra. There are many times in a trio when I feel I just can't miss. It's the best feeling.
I've heard that your trio has performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto more than just about everybody.
That's what everybody says!
Are you still able to get excited about playing it?
Absolutely. It's such a great piece and it has a phenomenal cello part. Each time I play it I enjoy it even more. Plus, when you're playing with different orchestras and different conductors, it's a very different experience each time.
I have the Eroica Trio's recording of the Beethoven Triple. It's very impressive how you don't shrink away from the difficult parts in the high register. In fact, you seem to become even more bold.
I hate it when cellists shrink away when they play in the high register. The cello has the most beautiful sound in the world. Of course, I'm not biased. The cello sound is so rich and multi-faceted that it pains me when a cellist pulls back when they are in the upper register and have this thin, wiry sound that doesn't bear any resemblance to the beauty and richness of the lower register. The upper register is in many ways the most beautiful range of the cello. It's so golden and heavenly, and I really go for it when I play up there. Having high strings makes it easier to do this.
I would think it would be harder on the left hand to play with high strings.
It takes more work, but the disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages of more power and sonority. I can push harder and play closer to the bridge without sacrificing my sound. It also makes things a bit easier in the higher registers for the left hand since there's more room to maneuver.
What are you doing in terms of solo engagements?
I just played a new cello concerto with the Albany Symphony by Daron Hagen. It's incredibly beautiful. I had no idea how gorgeous it was until I started rehearsing with orchestra. I'm hoping to record it this summer at the Lancaster Festival.
I'm also doing quite a bit with improvisation. I am in a group, called "Triptych." We do shows in clubs like the Knitting Factory.
I noticed that you do quite a lot of arranging. Several pieces on your CD, Dreaming, were arranged by you.
I'm really getting more and more into arranging. I am thinking of doing an album of all arrangements. That CD has five of my arrangements, which wasn't the plan at first. It just worked out that way.
There's a cellist who records quite a bit who uses a lot of arrangements. I can tell the arrangements weren't done by cellists because they clearly don't understand the beauty of the cello. It's a shame when these arrangements are recorded. They could be much more beautifully done.
I like the idea that I am continuing the performer-arranger tradition that was represented so beautifully by musicians such as Kreisler, Piatigorsky, Casals, and Popper. Everybody did it back then and today almost nobody does it. This saddens me because it seems like we're becoming more and more specialized and less well-rounded musicians.
Some are worried about offending musical scholars.
If you've seen what I've done, it should be clear that I could care less about the scholars. I arranged an opera aria for myself, which must ruffle some feathers. Also, the Eroica Trio recorded an entire baroque album with piano and I wasn't playing the gamba!
Something has been lost in our classical music culture. Read My Young Years by Rubenstein or Piatigorsky's biography and you'll see that they had a lot more fun with music. They didn't take themselves so seriously all the time. They lived life with gusto and they allowed themselves to have fun. We're not allowed to have as much fun with music as they did, which is a shame.
The classical music industry seems to be going in the wrong direction. Just look at the Grammy Awards and how the classical music nominations differ from the pop music. I'm a Grammy voting member so I keep track of what's nominated. Either incredibly gnarly contemporary pieces or warhorses are nominated in the classical category. There's no in between. We have three hundred years of fantastic compositions to choose from, so why is it that most traditional composer I've seen win in recent years is Shostakovich? Not a single piece that was nominated this year was written less than ten years ago. All of the music in the pop section, by contrast, was written last year. Something is very wrong with this picture.
There is a joke in the recording industry that if a classical record sells well, it's considered crossover. People lament about shrinking and graying audiences, but is it a surprise? Classical music has been completely ghettoized. We have virtually no presence on the Grammy broadcast, unless it's Yo-Yo playing crossover, of course, which millions of people in the world watch.
I think the root problem is that we've become too stodgy. This bothers me because I love classical music and it's been in my family forever. But I look at my son and I wonder if I would want to encourage him to go into this field. It seems like we are sucking the life out of it in many ways, and the only time we're allowed to have fun is when we do crossover. What we need to be doing is allowing the fun to come back into our music. If the artists are having fun, the audience will have fun too. If the musicians on stage are deadly serious with pursed lips, who wouldn't blame the audience for feeling intimidated?
My work with improvisation has helped me to see this even more clearly. I find that everything I play is affected by my improvisation. Whether I'm playing baroque music or a contemporary concerto, I understand on a deeper level that every single piece is full of life and passion. The people who wrote the music we play were not stuffy, bitter people. They were human beings with extraordinary talent who were full of enthusiasm. They felt strongly about things and they wanted us to play their music with passion. They were often full of humor too, which they infused in their music.
I remember rehearsing a concerto with a regional orchestra and there was this young female cellist who watched me constantly. She came up to me before the concert and said with a suspicious look, "Why are you always smiling when you play?" I replied, "Because I'm having fun. Aren't you?" During the concert, I happened to glance over at her and noticed that she was smiling for the first time. She finally got it! Somebody gave her permission to appreciate the joy of playing music. For me, playing music is unbridled joy! We professionals need to let the audience in on it too. Let's give our audience permission to laugh, to enjoy themselves, and to experience the exhilaration of listening to great music.
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