Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, January 21, 1999

Columbia Artists
The Eroica Trio, from left: Sara Rant'Ambrogio,
pianist Erika Nickrenz and Adela Pena .

Taking the
snootiness out of
chamber music

Eroica Trio presents the
classics as 'rip snorting

By Burl Burlingame


AS Adela Pena remembers it, the turning point in her life occurred around age 10. Pena already had been taking violin lessons more than half her life. The echoes of kids playing down the street began to chip away at her resolve, and practice became a chore.

One day she told her mother she didn't want to play violin anymore.

"Mom just said, 'OK.' That's it -- OK!" breathes Pena, and over the long-distance line from San Diego, you can sense her eyes getting big at the memory. She was shocked. Her parents were, after all, working jazz musicians with some classical training in their native Sicily. Of all the reactions she expected, this was the most surprising, and the scariest.

Pena is one-third of the Eroica Trio, performing tomorrow night in the latest installment of the Honolulu Chamber Music Series. You see, she didn't pack away her violin after all.

Erika Nickrenz is the pianist, the daughter of a violist-impresario father and a record-producer mother. Sara Sant'Ambrogio is the cellist, and her father is a cellist with the St. Louis Symphony. "Sara's excited about playing with her father. They'll cello-bond," said Pena.

"I'm the odd bird, I fear. The others come from generations of classically trained musicians." said Pena. "I'm the first in my family to be formally trained in classical music."

But her parents played classical music constantly on recordings, and little Adela would weep with emotion during violin passages. She demanded a violin as soon as she could talk, and began sawing away when she was 4. And then came the showdown.

"I was aghast when Mom said it was OK if I quit playing violin. I sat down and thought about it, and realized there was nothing I liked more. It was the defining moment of my life."

Not many people have defining moments at age 10. The members of the Eroica Trio started early. Pena and Nickrenz grew up blocks apart in Greenwich Village, and met when they were 9. They played their first pieces together in music class after elementary school. Nickrenz and Sant'Ambrogio were paired up in Redd Foxx Music Camp as adolescents.

"So, by the time we wound up in Juilliard, we were all aware of each other," said Pena. "Then one day we sat down and began to sight-read a Mendelssohn trio -- and from that minute, we knew.

"It's like a relationship, we feel that close. We feel totally psychic. We're at the point where we respond to each other instinctively. Erika will raise an eyebrow, or Sara will change her breathing, and I know just what they're thinking."

The trio played a solo Beethoven "Triple" -- let's think about that entire phrase -- with the San Diego Symphony last weekend, and will do it again later with the St. Louis Symphony. "It's kind of new for us but it's working out very well," said Pena. "The big dramatic flair of the orchestra adds a whole other dimension. It's really cool. Lots of fun."

Pure style

The group takes its name from the Italian word for "heroic," also the working title of Beethoven's Third Symphony. It's a fair description of their performing style -- a kind of crystal, raindrop purity to their tone, gathered together in a sweeping thunderstorm of emotion. It makes chamber music, once the province of eggheads, oddly sexy.

Speaking of which, virtually no story about the Eroica Trio seems to get by without mentioning how attractive the three members are, or how well they dress. Music writers across the land seem to consider this a miracle of the first order. We'll note only that Pena is the brunette of the group, and plays violin with the delicacy of a brain surgeon and the gusto of a galloping stallion; an arresting combination. Everything else is frosting.

It's no accident that chamber groups face inward when they play. "Chamber music," as German composer Werner Henze noted, "conceives itself as a world of sound that has external boundaries but no internal ones."

Since that magic moment at Juilliard 13 years ago, the three have worked closely on their repertoire.

"In chamber music, there's so much out there. You want to explore every aspect of the human psyche and emotional palette. Sara says it's like a menu: a little Baroque appetizer, a salad to warm up, meat-and-potatoes like Brahms, and for dessert, a Hungarian dance.

"Once we select a piece, we're committed to it, we want to explore it from the inside out. We want the repertoire at our fingertips. The Beethoven 'Triple' (we did) in San Diego is one of our signature pieces, and the wonderful thing about a great piece of music like that is you explore it your entire life and not exhaust it."

The Honolulu concert will include Mozart's Trio in C Major, Schoenfield's "Cafe Music for Trio" and Schubert's Trio No. 1 in B-Flat Major.

Humanizing the classics

The group constantly plays small benefits and unusual locations, an effort to checkmate chamber music's snooty reputation. "I've been a little surprised at how well chamber music is doing in reaching out to younger audiences," said Pena. "Particularly with the government cutting funding to arts education, it's important to show how music can reach a central part of your being and emotion core that no other art can touch.

"We're lucky that we're hanging on to the fans we already have, in addition to creating new fans, for the world of chamber music is changing. In the 1940s and '50s there was an air of high glamour to classical music. Going to a classical concert was an exciting event. A generation later, for some reason, classical seemed stuffy, elitist, exclusive."

Roll over, Beethoven!

"Humanizing classical music has made all the difference, and we're seeing a real excitement now in audiences. They're on the upswing. We're working on that bit of emotion and passion to infuse the music -- ranging from ethereal moment to rip-snorting tear-'em-ups."

They've begun to hit other countries, including Vietnam and Japan. "Music is universal, and there's an appeal to whatever we do. We played Gershwin preludes in Japan and didn't know how they'd react, but they were swinging with us. Very enthusiastic."

It means lots of flying.

"We're on the road about half the time now. It keeps our relationships fresh. Erika and I are married, and Sara's single and has a little doggie."

Pena has a priceless Italian instrument that fits neatly into an overhead compartment, and Sant'Ambrogio's equally inseparable cello gets its own airline seat. "Oh my gosh, they're like our children! They're never out of our sight."

Nickrenz, however, must adjust to a new piano at every stop. "She's amazing. Sometimes she has to play like a little peanut, barely touching the keys so she doesn't drown us out."

There is a distinct advantage to buying an extra seat on the airline for the cello, though. "It means they bring an extra meal!"


The Eroica Trio

bullet In concert: 8 p.m. tomorrow
bullet Place: Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawaii at Manoa
bullet Admission: $15-$20, at Harry's Music Store, UH Campus Center or at the box office (opens 7:30 p.m.)
bullet Call: 956-8242
bullet Also: Meet the artists, 7 p.m., Music Building Room 36.
bullet Neighbor Islands:
Bullet Kauai: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center (245-8270).
Bullet Big Island: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26, Ka'u Concert Society (928-8477); 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27, University of Hawaii-Hilo Theatre (974-7310); 7 p.m. Jan. 28, Kahilu Theatre, Waimea (885-6868).

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