Creative of the Month- July
Praised as an “expressive and passionate chamber musician” by the San Antonio Express-News, Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio has enjoyed a varied performing and recording career as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral leader. Assistant Professor of Violin and Viola at the University of Nevada, Reno and member of the Argenta Trio, she is also Artistic Director of Cactus Pear Music Festival, which she founded in 1997 while serving as Concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony. Sant’Ambrogio has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the U.S. as well as in Canada, Estonia, Sweden, Ghana, Italy, Peru, Chile and Mexico. In addition to her active performing career, Stephanie is devoted to teaching serious young violinists, many of whom have successfully chosen careers in music.
In 2010, she won the Alan Bible Teaching Excellence Award at UNR and was also appointed Concertmaster of the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra. Ms. Sant’Ambrogio plays a violin crafted in 1757 by J.B. Guadagnini of Milan and a viola by Jacek Zadlo, 2008. In the moments when one of these instruments is not nestled under her chin, she and her husband Gary Albright enjoy life with their daughters, thirteen-year-old Isabel and eleven-year-old Gabrielle, who also study music.
I understand you come from a family of musicians. Can you tell us more?
My grandmother Isabelle Sant’Ambrogio was a concert pianist and started a music camp in the Berkshires (MA) called Red Fox Music Camp (named for no other reason than because of the weather vane atop the barn!) and then my Dad, John (former Principal Cellist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra) helped run it for 25 years. My grandfather was also a violinist and teacher, but I never met him. My younger sister Sara Sant’Ambrogio plays cello in the Eroica Trio.
Was there a defining moment in your musical life?
I was fifteen and in 9th grade when I finally didn’t have to be nagged by my father to practice my 3-4 hours daily on the violin, and I think the moment that really turned me on to wanting to make my living as a performing violinist came just after that. It was in the summer of 1976 and I was about to turn 16. I was on a Youth Orchestra Tour in Austria, Italy & Switzerland with the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra performing concerts for 2 weeks. The audiences were so appreciative of our music. They were even more enthusiastic than at home. We were in Vienna on my birthday on July 15 and so I celebrated with my orchestra buddies by going to a café and drinking a beer. For a kid who couldn’t legally drink in the U.S., that was pretty cool. And although Austrian beer is very good, I actually don’t drink beer as an adult, but I felt pretty sophisticated back then!
As a professional musician, what have you found most challenging in your career?
Taking orchestra auditions is by far the most challenging thing that any musician can do. One has about 8 minutes to prove to a committee sitting on the other side of a screen that you are the best violinist among a group of between 30 to over 100 violinists. It’s very stressful, emotionally painful and expensive to fly all around the country to take auditions.
For me, playing chamber music with colleagues is the ultimate. It’s like being invited to an intimate dinner party where everyone has something interesting to say, so you listen and then respond and it’s all so satisfying. I guess that’s why I started a chamber music festival. Of course, it was also because I realized that there was virtually no classical music happening during the 3 summer months in the entire region, so it seemed like a good idea.
After 16 years of the Cactus Pear Music Festival, what is one of the greatest lessons you have learned about putting together such an event?
Well, the first few years, I’d lose sleep worrying about the finances, the logistics, the multitude of details to take care of, etc., but now I just leave it in God’s hands and I’m led to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Of course the other 90% of what needs to be done in order to have a successful music festival is accomplished by our supernatural Executive Director, Renee Davis. She really is a force of nature, and along with my graphic designer husband Gary Albright, who creates everything that is visual for CPMF, and strong support from a hard working 13-member Board of Directors, we bring forth this festival each season. We are blessed by Board members that believe in our mission of music and education.
When there is a glitch (and there always are at least a few), I think to myself (after I first utter a few choice words), what can I learn from this situation? What’s my lesson here? For instance, last summer the piano movers by their mistake came 4 days early to remove the piano. Luckily a musician had arrived early to the rehearsal and questioned their action. Already, I’ve called that gentleman and confirmed when he’s supposed to deliver and remove our Steinway rental, so hopefully that glitch won’t happen again. But of course, there’s always something, but I’m calmer now after 16 years of organizing this festival. Oh yeah, and I have teenage girls now, so that’s helped to teach me to take life in stride.
For someone who has never been to Cactus Pear Music Festival, how would you describe it in just a few words?
You would be shocked to see & hear that classical music is so much fun, soul satisfying and exciting to experience. It can be every bit as intense and athletic as a Spurs game, or as soothing as a lullaby. This summer season’s musical offerings span almost 300 years of composition. From Nicolas Bernier’s early Baroque Le Caffé cantata written in 1711 to Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1960s) and Evan Premo’s Seasonal Song Cycle composed in 2004. There’s a reason why we keep playing music written so many years ago. They are masterpieces!
How many different states and countries of origin are represented by this year's musicians?
We have Artists who are originally from or coming to us this summer from Bulgaria, Israel, Poland, Canada, Spain/Russia, the Netherlands and then we have exceptional Artists from San Antonio, Houston and Austin as well.
What do you wish to see in the future for San Antonio's music community?
I am so pleased with the way chamber music has caught on in San Antonio. The audiences are twice as big as they were when I first moved to SA in 2007 and keep growing. The support is present and strong and there is wonderful collaboration, cooperation and cross-pollination between all of the various SA chamber, solo piano and vocal groups.
I am discouraged, however by what seems to me to be a lack of appropriate and deserving support for the San Antonio Symphony. It’s simple: The people of San Antonio need to step up to the plate and cherish their world-class symphony orchestra. The SAS is every bit the championship team that the Spurs are–and we all admire our basketball team. The SAS musicians are on that same world-class level and I’d like to see them supported every bit as much.