Interview with Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, current violinist with the Argenta Trio.

Conducted by Forrest Hartman


Name: Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio

Age: 52

City of residence: Reno

Years with Argenta: 2007 to present





Forrest: Let’s go way back. Where did you grow up?


Stephanie: I was born in Boston. My father is a cellist, and he was in the Boston Symphony. When I was 8 years old, he won the position of Principal Cello of the St. Louis Symphony, so our family moved from Boston to St. Louis. I studied violin with a lot of different teachers growing up. I didn’t necessarily want to practice, nor did I want to be a violinist, until about 9th grade. The change was in part due to my grandmother, my father’s mother, who was a wonderful concert pianist and great teacher. She bought me some LPs in the days of record players, and she really inspired me to want to be a professional musician. I played with her until I was 19, when she unfortunately passed on. My grandmother had a music camp in Western Massachusetts that she founded and ran for 30 years. My Dad helped run the camp. I went to Red Fox Music Camp, every summer of my life until I was 17, when I did a couple other music camps.


Anyway, I loved my grandmother and I wanted to please her. I remember one time my sister and I had pretty much stopped practicing our instruments. My sister is a professional cellist now. At Christmastime at the dinner table, my grandmother said, “Girls, I’ve heard that you haven’t been practicing.” I felt really bad. I just did not want to disappoint my grandma. There was that and also, in 9th grade, we moved to a new house and a new school district. It was hard for me to make friends, which wasn’t normal for me. I’m pretty social, but it was 7th, 8th and 9th grade – it was junior high – so all the 9th graders already had their little cliques. I’d come home from school and I didn’t have anybody to hang out with, so I’d turn to the violin. I started practicing more and more, and the more I practiced the better I got and the more fun it was.


I joined the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, and I actually turned 16 while on a summer tour with the orchestra in Europe. I remember drinking a beer for the first time in Vienna on my birthday. That was a very memorable experience for me. That whole time, when I was 14, 15, 16 years old, made me realize I wanted to be a professional musician. I went to Indiana University for my undergraduate degree and the Eastman School of Music for my Master’s. I had only been at Eastman for one year when I thought it would be smart for me to try to take an audition for any one of the Big Five Orchestras that were holding auditions that summer. Out of the Big Five, which are Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago, the only two orchestras that were having auditions were The Cleveland Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. So, I sent off my application to those 2.


In those days, the screening process for orchestra auditions wasn’t quite as difficult as it is right now… Prior to the ’90s, you just sent in your resume and if you were at a reputable music school or conservatory, you would most likely be invited to audition, so I was accepted to those two auditions. Then, Philadelphia cancelled their audition at the last minute, so I had only one chance. I took the audition for Cleveland just because I wanted to see what it took to prepare an audition for one of these big orchestras. The big orchestras often – in those days at least – required complete works. So, my list was 15 complete symphonies, orchestral pieces… It was a very, very hard list, and I was so young and naïve – I was 24 –I didn’t even know which spots to practice. So, I practiced everything! Anyway, I took that audition – it was at the end of August – and I was shocked to be offered a job right away. I still had another year for my Master’s, but they offered me a contract to play in the back of the second violins, which is where most people start. I had no real professional orchestral experience at that point, except for as an extra with the St. Louis Symphony and as a student at Eastman, I’d been playing in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. I had won a B contract, which allowed you just to play the classical concerts and no pops or educational concerts.


I had a sailing trip planned at the end of August with my dad and my sister around Cape Cod. So, we went on this trip and I told my Dad, “I don’t know what to do. I got offered this job, but I want to finish my Master’s. It’s really important to me because someday I might want to be a teacher, and I’m going to need at least a Master’s degree to get that kind of job.” … So when I got home from my trip, I asked The Cleveland Orchestra (TCO) Personnel Manager, “Would you wait for me for a year?” He said, “No.” So I asked, “Could I start now in August but then leave in the summer to do summer school and complete my Master’s?” He said, “No, we can’t do that.” Then, I found out that I would be able to transfer a few Master’s credits that I had taken at Indiana University after I had graduated with my Bachelor’s. They would accept them at Eastman. So, I said, “I think I can finish in a semester.” I asked him, “If I finish this semester would you wait for me until January?” He replied, “Oh yes. Sure.” So, that’s what happened. I finished my Master’s and I started with The Cleveland Orchestra in January of 1985… I played with the orchestra for 8 seasons before I started getting restless.


After a couple of years with TCO, I took a move-up audition and I was promoted from the last stand to the first stand of the Second Violins. But I really wanted to be playing first violin because the first violin parts are much more challenging. I spoke with the conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi. I said, “I really feel that I need to be playing First Violin. Is there any chance that you could move me over?” He said, “As soon as someone dies or retires, I will be happy to move you over.” You see, most musicians don’t leave a job in one of the big five orchestras. They call it the golden handcuffs because it’s a great job.


But after eight years, I was burned out on playing orchestral music because the orchestra not only plays three concerts a week – it was a 52-week orchestra, although it had 9 vacation weeks – but we toured and recorded a lot as well. One summer, the orchestra did a three-week Asian and a four-week European tour in the same summer. So, I was gone for seven weeks. I realized I didn’t want to start a family in that orchestra. There was no way I was going to leave my children for seven weeks at a time. The Maestro said, “I’ll move you over as soon as there’s an opening,” but it would have been three more years of playing in the Seconds and I just didn’t want to do that. I was young enough that I knew if I left the orchestra and practiced hard I would get a good job somewhere else. I didn’t know if it would be another big orchestra, but I was kind of burned out on orchestra, and I really loved to teach. I had nine students at that time, which was really a lot, considering that I had a full-time orchestra job. I have 10 students in my class here at UNR. So, I had nine students, plus a full-time job. Plus, on the days off, we were often recording with The Cleveland Orchestra. During, one or two years we were actually recording two Strauss cycles with different conductors; the same music. We’d play “Don Juan” with Ashkenazy, and a month later we were recording again “Don Juan” with Dohnanyi. It was too much. So, I asked for a sabbatical. They wouldn’t give it to me, so I decided to resign.


Forrest: Without having another job?


Stephanie: Without having another job, just my nine students. I was also in a string quartet. The musicians in that group were all members of Cleveland. So, for two more years while I lived in Cleveland and freelanced, I kept playing in the quartet. I arranged the concerts because I was the most entrepreneurial. I had great opportunities during the first 2 years that I left the orchestra. I toured Italy with Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project, and I cycled around New Zealand for 2 weeks.


Forrest: Who were you playing with when you went to Italy?


Stephanie: It was with another quartet from New York City. For the two years that I was not attached to The Cleveland Orchestra, I was still basically living in Cleveland. I was teaching at Kent State University and teaching my private high school kids. Then, I was asked to be concertmaster of the Akron Symphony, a little orchestra south of Cleveland. For two years, I just did that, but I had saved up $30,000 before I left the orchestra because since I was giving up the golden handcuffs, I knew I wanted to have a little cushion so I wouldn’t have to get a job within a year or two. That $30,000 lasted well after the two years because I was also earning money teaching and performing.


Then in 1994, I got offered the Concertmaster job in the San Antonio Symphony, which to me was the perfect-size orchestra because it was smaller. It was about 75 musicians instead of 104, but they had the summers off. It was only from September to the first of June. I had the whole summer off, so I could do chamber music festivals, which is my first passion. I like orchestra, but chamber music is my favorite. So, I was very happy there. I met my husband who is a graphic designer from Philadelphia. He was visiting someone from San Antonio when we met. Then, we got married and bought a house and we had children, and it was great until our girls were 2 and 4. Then, the San Antonio Symphony, which had always had financial difficulties, filed for bankruptcy. For 16 months, I earned no income from the symphony.


Forrest: What did you do?


Stephanie: I was living in San Antonio, but none of us musicians had any work. The symphony just closed down for a year to reorganize, and when they came back, instead of a 39-week orchestra – which was perfect, I thought – it became a 26-week orchestra. So, it wasn’t as much of a living wage. At that point, I started thinking, “I’m going to try and get a concertmaster job with another orchestra.” I made the finals of Rochester, Oregon and Vancouver, but I didn’t get those jobs. So, I thought, “Well, maybe orchestra is not where I’m meant to be. I keep making some finals and playing a week with these orchestras but I’m not getting the job, so maybe teaching and chamber music really is my niche.” I think this (job at UNR) was my third audition. I auditioned in Wisconsin, and I got in the finals at Indiana University where I went to school, and then I got offered this job teaching and performing with Argenta.  I thought, “This is what I want.” I’ve never turned back. Each time I’ve left a position it was for the better. I’m really, really happy here. I’m very content to be here until I retire, whenever that will be.


Forrest: We’re talking about three fairly different cities in Cleveland, San Antonio and Reno. How has the transition been for you and your family?


Stephanie:  My husband and I didn’t think we’d ever end up any further west because he’s from Philly and I’m originally from Boston, but we like it. We like raising our girls here because it’s a smaller city. We like that there’s less traffic. We like that Lake Tahoe is nearby so we can do those kinds of activities. We like that San Francisco is so close. I loved Cleveland when I was there but places, for me at least, have a life and at some point it’s time to move on. Who knows? If I’d gotten a first violin position in Cleveland, maybe I would have stayed there, but I don’t think I would have been happy. Even though orchestra life is fulfilling and exciting, it’s also very demanding, and there’s a lot of time playing as one of 100 people. I’d much rather hear my own musical voice in a piano trio, as one of three, rather than one of 100. San Antonio was fun right in the beginning, after living in Cleveland. The weather, of course, was really nice. You feel like you’re living in a different country. It’s 65 percent Hispanic. I loved that, the colorfulness of being in that community. I also liked that in San Antonio, compared to some cities where the Hispanic population is significant, there’s a lot of intermarriage. In San Diego, I always feel like the Hispanic population is sort of downtrodden and does not have as many opportunities. In San Antonio, it’s completely a mixture because the people have had a long history of Caucasians and Mexicans living together and working together. It’s homogenous. It’s a really nice environment, and I go back four or five times a year because I run this music festival in San Antonio. It’s going on its 17th year, so I go for board meetings and fundraisers and things like that. And we have a house that’s still there. 


Forrest: You still own it?


Stephanie: Yes. We haven’t been able to sell it, but we’re renting it and that’s helping.


Forrest: In your career, it seems that you never completely move away from a place because you travel for work.


Stephanie: Right. Exactly. It’s so funny because some people say, “Oh, you have to travel for your work” as though it’s a bad thing. I say, “You know what? It’s so nice to get on a plane and for two or three hours nobody’s asking anything of me. It’s just “my time,” and I don’t get that when I’m working in Reno. I’m very, very busy preparing and teaching and keeping my chops up, so those little trips are mommy breaks and they’re very refreshing for me. They sort of rejuvenate me spiritually and emotionally. 


Forrest: Speaking of that, you’re very busy professionally. You’re teaching, you’re concertmaster of the Fresno Philharmonic, you’re in Argenta, you’re performing solo concerts. How do you balance all those things?


Stephanie: I like it. I think variety really is the spice of life, and I always say I’d rather be busy than bored. Also, the different types of performing – the solo performing, the chamber music, the orchestral – take different skills. I don’t want to ever give that up. When I first came here, I wasn’t doing orchestra for the first two or three years. I have enjoyed being the concertmaster of Fresno because it’s five times a year that I go. When I’m in Fresno, again, it’s a really nice break because I have all day to practice. To be honest, my favorite thing to do is practice. As a kid I hated it, but I love practicing now.


Forrest: More than performing?


Stephanie: I would say more than performing. Everybody is different. I would say (Argenta cellist) Dmitri (Atapine) is a real born performer. He likes to be the center of attention. I actually don’t care for that as much. I have to get myself up mentally and emotionally to perform well. I am very content to sit for three hours with a score and change how it sounds. I play through it and I think, “Hmm. How can I make that better or different?” I love that process. I love that solo process, by myself, analyzing a score, figuring out how I’m going to play it. I think that’s so incredible. Performing is really fun, too, especially with other people. But I do love being in a room by myself working on my craft.


Forrest: I guess your attitude is a good one.


Stephanie: Yes. You have to practice to keep growing and learning repertoire. I have a lot of music to learn these days.


Forrest: Speaking of your childhood, you said your father was a cellist, your grandmother was a pianist and your sister is a cellist. What drew you to violin when you had all these other musicians around you playing other instruments?


Stephanie: Nothing. My father just brought home a violin when I was five and said, “You’re going to play the violin.” As far as my playing goes, there wasn’t any kind of romantic thing where I heard a violin and I had to play the violin. My dad just brought home a small violin, and I started playing it. My mom, I think, knew before I knew that I wanted to be a professional musician. She’s told me, “I’d see you play in elementary school and middle school. The way you moved, I could tell you loved it.” I did like to play the instrument. I just didn’t like to practice because it was tedious.


Forrest: It’s interesting that your attitude about practice has changed so much.


Stephanie: I think I started to like to practice when I was 16 or 17. I went to a music camp in upstate New York called Meadowmount. It’s a very famous music camp started by Ivan Galamian, the great pedagogue at Juilliard. I didn’t get to study with him because I was too lowly at the time. But I was there for one summer – it was seven weeks – and they require you to practice five hours a day. I turned 17 that summer, and I had never practiced that amount of time. Normally, I practiced maybe two or three hours a day. At camp, I was practicing seven hours a day because my teacher at Meadowmount, Sally Thomas, was giving me so much music to learn every week, so many etudes. It was five and six etudes a week, whereas I would do one for like two weeks back at home. I was practicing about seven hours a day so I could learn it all for my lesson. After that point, it was sort of like when you train for a marathon and then go for an eight-mile run. It seems like nothing. I had gotten to a point where I had stamina to practice six to seven hours a day, so when I got back to St. Louis and started my senior year, I could practice four hours no problem. I started to enjoy it then. 


Forrest: You said your mom knew you would work in music before you did. Were you thinking about other careers?


Stephanie: I’ve always loved children, so I thought I might be a teacher of some kind, maybe an elementary school teacher… I ended up being a teacher, but not the kind that I thought.


Forrest: Now, you’re married and you have kids.


Stephanie: Two girls, ages 12 and 14.


Forrest: Are they musical as well?


Stephanie: They’re both very talented, but they have assured me that they don’t want to go into music. I don’t know why. Maybe because that’s the way I was when I was younger, too. Bella plays the flute beautifully, just beautifully; Brie studies piano with Dmitri’s wife, (Adela Park) and she has surpassed my piano abilities!


Forrest: And your husband is not a musician?


Stephanie: He’s a graphic designer, and that’s wonderful for me. He’s so in awe of what I do, which is really nice to be married to someone like that. Plus, we collaborate on things artistically. For our music festival, he creates all of the marketing materials. And he does all my CDs too. There are a lot of things we can do together, work-wise, that are really fun. Also, he’s so amazing and supportive as a father. He allows me to do what I need to do for my career. When the Fresno job came up I said, “Honey, I’ll be gone for five-day stretches six times a year. Six times a year, you’ll have to do everything: making lunches, making breakfasts, getting the girls to their music lessons, getting them to their soccer practices. Are you sure you think I should do this?” He said, “I think you should do it. It’s important for your career.” I thought, “Wow.” It’s really nice. Not all spouses are that supportive, especially when it’s the husband. His office is in our home, so he’s there when the girls come home from school if I’m not back yet. I’m blessed, very, very blessed.


Forrest: Can you talk a little more about the Cactus Pear Music Festival that you continue to run in San Antonio?


Stephanie: We started that 17 years ago because in the summers there was virtually no classical music in the south Texas region. The symphony and all the chamber music societies in that region closed their doors June 1, so I thought what a perfect opportunity to start a festival. It’s two weeks long, and now we have five programs. We bring one outside ensemble in, and the artists come from all over. Last summer, I even brought a couple from Amsterdam. He’s a cellist and his wife is a harpsichordist and they do Baroque music together. It’s really fun.


Forrest: Is it difficult to run long distance?


Stephanie: No. It’s just like my husband’s graphic design business. He still has clients from Philly and from San Antonio, and he picked up a few here. It’s all FedEx and computer, so it’s really easy. The board wants me to be at every board meeting and we have about four a year, so they fly me in. This year, we actually coordinated the board meetings with fundraisers.


Forrest: Has your work here helped with the festival? I imagine the more players you meet, the more you can cross-pollinate?


Stephanie: Yes. I had Dmitri play there the last two summers, and I’m having him again this summer. (Argenta Pianist) Jim (Winn) I’ve had a total of two summers since I moved here. Bella Hristova, played with the Reno Chamber Orchestra and then played with the Fresno Philharmonic because Ted Kuchar is the conductor of both. I really like Bella’s playing, and he told me he was going to hire her last year for the Nevada Chamber Music Festival. I thought, “Wow, a soloist. I’m going to ask her.” She came, we had a great time, and I’m having her again this summer. You’re right, it helps that I meet people all over. It’s really nice.


Forrest: It seems like you are pleased with the current Argenta lineup.


Stephanie: It’s inspiring. It’s exciting. There’s no limit to our possibilities in this incarnation. Dmitri is, like me, a great entrepreneur, and he has lots of big ideas. So, I think it’s a really exciting time in the Argenta Trio’s history.


Forrest: I imagine working with someone who has as many ideas as you causes the two of you to feed off one another?


Stephanie: Definitely, and he’s so easy to work with. He’s just great. We do a lot of co-teaching. We co-teach the string quartet and we co-teach the OCS class, which is the orchestral career studies class. I added entrepreneurism to that class because I realized that some of these students might not get jobs with living-wage orchestras after they graduate. And, even if they get a job in a living-wage orchestra, some of those orchestras are folding or are being “locked out” by their managements. 


Forrest: That’s interesting. So you teach entrepreneurism?


Stephanie: Yes. Just to this grad class.


Forrest: What sorts of things to you teach them?


Stephanie: There are two books that I assign them: “The Savvy Musician” and “Beyond Talent.” There are chapters on everything: bios and resumes, marketing materials, the importance of having good people skills, networking, schmoozing. They have readings out of those two books, plus I have two other books that I recommend, but that are not required. Then, we have discussions and lectures, seminar-style, every couple weeks. We also have orchestral excerpts, which is what they have to play for any kind of orchestra audition. We’ve combined all these things because I realized that one of the reasons I survived the 16 months when the San Antonio Symphony wasn’t paying me any money was that I am an entrepreneur. Not only did I have a small monthly salary from the festival, but I was teaching and I was creating other opportunities for myself. That’s what our students need to know. They can’t just sit and wait for the phone to ring. They have to create these opportunities.


I think there are a lot of people in the world who don’t understand classical music or don’t appreciate classical music or have no interest in it. But I think most of them, if they were given it in the right packaging by fantastic musicians, would be surprised at how beautiful it is and how much they enjoy it. As Dmitri has said before, there’s a reason why we’re still playing music written more than 200 years ago. It’s valuable. It’s timeless. It still speaks to our emotion. It’s art. I tell my students. You could go live anywhere you want. You want to live in Boulder, Colorado? You want to live in some beautiful place in California? Choose the city, then check it out and figure out what’s missing. What isn’t there yet? Is there a chamber music series there? No. Then, start one. Is there a music school to teach violin? No. Then, start one. I am a firm believer because of my own experience. We survived those 16 months partly because of that.


Forrest: You have a really positive attitude. Some people today talk as though the music business is terrible, in part because of digital piracy. It sounds like you’re pretty hopeful.


Stephanie: Yes. People have been saying for decades, “The audiences for classical music are all gray-haired.” Yes, that’s true, and as those people die off, there are new people with gray hair sitting in the seats. I don’t think that classical music is going to die. I just don’t believe that. I also have met a lot of people in Texas who love the music I do who came to classical music later in life. Most people who come to symphonies or support chamber music societies and festivals – I would say 95 percent – have studied a musical instrument as a child. That’s why I think it’s really important that we try to keep music in the schools and that we, as performers, keep making sure that we are providing music in the schools. We have to introduce these kids to the great music. Otherwise, they might not want to listen to it later.


Forrest: That said, are you concerned about what’s going on in schools. It seems like, particularly with current budget cuts, arts programs are the first things that get chopped.


Stephanie: I know, I know. But there are enlightened pockets in this country. I played a couple concertos with the Steamboat Springs, Colorado, orchestra. My father retired there, so their conductor asked if I would play some solo pieces with the orchestra. While there, I did a masterclass in a charter school. There were only two things in that school that most schools don’t have. No. 1, every student from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade had to study and do transcendental meditation; 20 minutes every morning and at the end of the day. The other thing they all had to do is learn a stringed instrument. Do you believe that? Every single kid in that school plays a stringed instrument. These kids are so bright. It was amazing. It was so refreshing. So, there are places where people get it and realize how important that is… I also have to say when I taught mostly high school and middle school students in San Antonio, all those kids were very good on their instrument and were taking honors classes or they were in the Gifted and Talented program. I think they (music and academics) feed off each other. Are these kids good at the violin because they’re smart or are they smart because they’ve reached a certain level on the violin? Or is it that their parents value education? Who knows? But they’re always connected.


Forrest: We’ve covered a lot of ground, and I’d like to close by asking what plans you have for your career moving forward?


Stephanie: When I retire from a job, I know that I will still want to play concerts and teach young violinists. I also have this dream of starting another non-profit after I retire that presents concerts in beautiful homes. Maybe the trio, if we’re all still living here, could be a nucleus of the series because there are some beautiful homes here. To experience chamber music in that setting, in an intimate home, in a living room, is where it all started.  I think it would be very exciting to do that. Maybe six concerts a year in homes and then always have delicious food and wine afterward. Maybe that would help the classical music audiences develop even more. I think when you experience something really special in music, in any type of form, you realize you love that and you start going to other kinds of concerts.