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Eroica: a Trio Con Brio

April 14, 1999

The Eroica Trio, one of the first all-female ensembles to reach the top echelon of the chamber-music field, plays Beethoven's Triple Concerto at a pair of concerts with the Pacific Symphony this week in Costa Mesa.

More than one publication has pegged violinist Adela Pena, cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio and pianist Erika Nickrenz as "classical babes" for their good looks, slinky gowns and public relations campaign that plays up both. Each thirtysomething member of the New York-based group maintains a solo career, albeit a shrinking one in the wake of their success as a piano trio.

Sant'Ambrogio spoke by phone last week to Benjamin Epstein before a solo concert at a festival in Sarasota, Fla.

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Question: Any truth to the rumor that the Triple Concerto is not quite up to the quality of Beethoven's concertos for single instruments?

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Answer: Actually . . . no. That rumor exists because it's extraordinarily difficult to play. Cellists call it the "Cripple Concerto."

Q. There's interplay enough in the standard concerto with a single soloist and orchestra. How would you describe the interplay in the Triple Concerto?

A. Because there are three soloists, there's a realm of just us. Beyond that, the best analogy would be if you were watching the finals of Wimbledon being played on top of a pipeline wave off of Hawaii--three soloists throwing off these phrases, passing these melodies back and forth, while surfing on top of the orchestra, on this lush Big Kahuna wave of sounds.

Q. The Triple Concerto is the orchestral work for trio, isn't it?

A. Up until next year it is. We have two new triple concertos being written for us as we speak. Kevin Kaska's has its world premiere next year with Orchestra X in Houston--a Gen-X orchestra and audience. Paul Schonfield's work premieres in the fall of 2000 in Milwaukee. In the meantime, we're playing Beethoven's Triple Concerto more than any other ensemble in the world.

Q. Although the trio was formed in 1986 at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, the three of you have known each other and played together since childhood. How much advantage do you imagine that gives you?

A. Huge, actually. What makes chamber music magic on stage is having three voices speaking as one. By having started together so young, we actually shaped each other as artists and as human beings. We basically can read each others' minds. We can innately, immediately sense where the others are going with a phrase, even if it's completely different from the day before. That gives us incredible freedom. Every performance can be so fresh and so new. We can be amazingly spontaneous and fluid, and still present a polished performance. I'm still amazed sometimes when I go off on a tangent, and the others are so right there with me.

Q. You draw a lot of young women to your concerts--70% of the audience on occasion. Why is that?

A. We do have a special relationship with young girls. It's empowering for them to see three young women who are successful, passionate about what they do and also having a great time. We have a dichotomy in our society--[you're either] Cindy Crawford or Janet Reno. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. The trio puts forth the message that you can be very disciplined, dedicated and be rewarded with success, and it doesn't mean you can't enjoy glamorous clothes. Even if you weren't born with the fabulous genetic cocktail of a model, you can be a woman, and get respect for what you achieve with talent, brains and hard work.

Q. Describe your feelings during a typical performance.

A. It feels like life and death on stage. Some of these pieces we play are the greatest masterpieces in the Western world. The emotion coursing through the music is coursing through you, you communicate that to the audience, and you all transcend your normal lives by this uplifting effect of intense emotion that everyone is feeling together. It's like method acting: You use your life, you pull up old painful memories of tragedy, or of joy, and you immerse yourself in that moment. It's like therapy. You go farther and farther into your emotional life to bring up fresh memories, so that you're not re-creating performances--you create new performances every night.

Q. So the audience does more than just fill seats for you.

A. The audience helps keep new emotions coming up. Most people don't realize that the audience has a big part in determining how a performance goes. Some audiences go more for tragedy--you sense that and it becomes more of a tragic performance. If they respond to joy, you underline the joy. Some audiences are quick to pick up on the humor, others respond to pain and sadness.

Q. You're not projecting your own state of mind?

A. There are moments on stage that feel so profound to me, like my heart is breaking, and I'll hear a gasp from the audience--their heart is breaking. I'm not projecting that gasp.

* The Eroica Trio and the Pacific Symphony, under conductor Maximiano Valdes, play Beethoven's Triple Concerto, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 tonight. Also on the program: Wagner's Prelude to "Die Meistersinger" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7. $10-$48. Also Thursday. (714) 755-5799.

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