Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, November 23, 2001


Glamour, passion
and a dash of ESP

Credit New York's complex connections
for the kismet that produced 3 lively,
lovely heroines of classical music

By Scott Vogel

If ever you find yourself in Greenwich Village on a romantic summer evening, one of those evenings when it's too warm to keep the windows closed and yet cool enough to forgo AC, take a detour onto tiny Barrow Street. At No. 46, surrounded by low-rise townhouses that immediately evoke Henry James' "Washington Square," sits a quaint little institution called the Greenwich House Music School.

They dress designer and play music of masters, the Eroica Trio,
from left are pianist Erika Nickrenz, cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio
and violinist Adela Peña.

It's there that a few wrong notes but many more right ones float out of the several practice rooms and onto the sidewalks and eventually into the quiet street. It's there that the youths of New York -- some as young as 2 -- begin their quest for fame and fortune in the city's ultracompetitive classical music biz. And it's there that Erika Nickrenz, age 9, first played the piano opposite violinist Adela Peña, also 9, thereby forging a partnership that would one day be known as the Eroica Trio.

Or two-thirds of it, anyway. The third member of the ensemble, cellist Sara Sant' Ambrogio, entered the picture three years later when she and Nickrenz studied under the tutelage of Sant'Ambrogio's grandmother. The nexus of New York connections is thick indeed, "quite complicated," as Nickrenz explained just before departing for Honolulu and a concert date with the Honolulu Symphony, with whom the trio will play Beethoven's Triple Concerto this weekend.

Eroica Trio

The Eroica Trio plays Beethoven's Triple Concerto with the Honolulu Symphony; concert also includes Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 2 and Symphony No. 2.

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
Cost: $15 to $55
Call: 792-2000

"My parents and Sara's parents knew each other," she said. "Sara's father is John Sant'Ambrogio, the principal cellist of the St. Louis symphony, and he knew my mother, who was a Grammy-winning record producer." It was the kind of kismet one only seems to find in New York, and one that led, via several more biographical twists and turns, to summer music camps, and hours and hours of lessons, before "we all ended up at Juilliard."

Flash forward a few decades. The trio is now an internationally acclaimed commodity, its concert appearances meeting the approval of critics (who adore their passion), fashionistas (who adore their clothes) and connoisseurs of female beauty (see photo). "Glamorous" is the word one often hears to describe them (e.g., on local radio spots); it's not an adjective, by the way, that Nickrenz is ashamed of.

"It's complimentary, of course," she said, laughing. "We feel that if (our image) draws people who wouldn't ordinarily come to a classical music concert, then we're all for it. We like to wear beautiful things" -- for which they credit their designer, Carmen Marc Valvo -- "and we wear what people would wear to the Academy Awards. If people are going to bother leaving their living rooms ... People love opera because of the visuals!"

This devotion to the presentational aspects of their music has meant that virtually every reporter who speaks to them (this one included) must ask about their clothes and look, but it's their playing for which the Eroica Trio is (still) principally known, and specifically the Beethoven concerto, which they apparently play more often than anyone else.

"It's so exciting because you usually have only one soloist in the orchestra, and here the three of us are interacting both with each other and the orchestra," Nickrenz said. "We can't sit like we normally do in a recital. We sit in a line and can't see each other, so Sara and Adela and I keep together by ESP, and listening to each other and hearing each other breathe."

It's an intuition that the trio developed over years of practicing, a synchronicity that persists even as the ensemble ages (they're now in their 30s) and life goes on.

"Let me put the baby down and get him something to keep him entertained for a while," said Nickrenz in between anecdotes about the trio's history and musical approach. Seven-month-old Zachary is one reason Nickrenz and her husband moved to a small house in New Jersey, 25 miles from New York City, even as the other Eroica folks still reside in Manhattan. Still, Peña has a 5-month-old boy of her own ("we didn't plan it that way"), yet another in a long series of coincidences that seem to be working in the musicians' favor.

"This tour goes from Honolulu to Seoul, and then to Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore. We're not taking the babies this time, but in the past it's worked out great. When we were in the same city for five nights, we shared a baby sitter!"

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