In February 2013, journalist Forrest Hartman had the opportunity to sit down with the current members of the Argenta Trio: pianist James Winn, violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio and cellist Dmitri Atapine. Following is the transcript of their conversation.


Forrest: Each of you teaches and performs extensively outside of your work with the Argenta Trio. How hard is it for you to find practice times that meet everybody’s schedule.


Stephanie: That’s actually not that hard because when I got here, which is just two years before Dmitri did, Jim said, “The trio usually rehearses Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.” So, we’ve kept that sacred.


Forrest: So, you just don’t schedule anything else during those times?


Jim: We really try hard not to. Basically, it’s because that time managed to avoid most of the pitfalls that the three of us would, from time to time, be required to meet.


Dmitri: It’s the very reason the three of us are right now in this room without having to reschedule anything. This is our regular meeting time.


Forrest: When you lead up to a concert, do you ramp up practices or are you able to handle everything in those two days a week?


Dmitri: We usually ramp up. First of all, we move into the hall. Usually we try to secure the hall for this time as opposed to rehearsing here (in Jim’s office). Also, we add a Friday dress and maybe even Saturday dress if it’s an especially challenging program.


Stephanie: Or if a guest artist is coming in.


Jim: Yes. That will greatly change the schedule because the guest artists often just can’t be here for an entire week. So, instead of having Tuesday, Thursday and the dress rehearsal and concert on Saturday or Sunday, we have to telescope the rehearsing.


Stephanie: For that one piece (involving the guest). Usually, when we have a guest, we only have one piece with them.


Forrest: I guess you deal with that by planning well in advance?


Dmitri: Well, it works out.


Stephanie: We plan in February. At the end of this month, most of the other orchestras, including the Reno Philharmonic, Reno Chamber Orchestra, Fresno Philharmonic and some of the UNR activities, have already been established. So, we wait until they’ve gotten their dates, and then we try to squeeze in our three Argenta concerts for the trio, plus Dmitri adds these other concerts for the Argenta Concert Series (which he runs). It’s a jigsaw puzzle. In fact, we’ve been pretty lucky. This year, we had a little problem where I had a date that was changed for a commitment I do in California. When I told Dmitri, he said, “We already had this scheduled with another artist from outside.” So, I’m going to miss that. But normally, we’re able to somehow piece it all together.


Forrest: It’s really nice for the community to have three players of your caliber performing together. It seems like you must all be pretty committed to the trio?


Jim: We have a very good time doing this. It’s like the icing on the cake.


Stephanie: At some universities, you teach, teach, teach, which is fantastic, but you can sometimes get tired or burned out. To be able to constantly perform, it reenergizes us for our teaching, and that balance, I think, is better.


Dmitri: Maybe it sounds cheesy, but I always viewed teaching and playing as parts of the same coin. I think that’s true for all of us because what is teaching but expressing yourself to your students? Playing is just more immediate. When I’m on stage, I’m communicating to the audience, and when I see my students play I think, “Wow, that’s inflected by me.” … I really enjoy both (playing and teaching). I feel that teaching is a slower process, but it’s much more lasting. Students go out and they start teaching themselves.


Jim: Also, in spite of the old saw about those who can do and those who can’t teach, if you can’t do, there are all kinds of necessary bits of knowledge that you don’t pick up. If you teach primarily but never again play, you get kind of rusty on some of those things, even if you used to know them.


Stephanie: Exactly. The better performer I am, I feel the better teacher I am and vice versa.


Forrest: So teaching helps your playing as well?


Dmitri: Well, thinking about music in general helps. Trying to think how to explain to somebody reveals many things.


Jim: Yes. It works both ways. You learn a lot about your own playing by being forced to explain it instead of just intuiting it.


Stephanie: There are different kinds of playing, too. Jim plays both in an orchestra, as an orchestral player; as a chamber musician; and as a soloist. It’s the same with Dmitri and myself. For me to play a concerto with an orchestra, I have to have different chops. There’s a different sort of mental and emotional feeling to performing a solo with an orchestra as opposed to playing in an orchestra as opposed to playing chamber music. The fact that we all three do all three of those types of music, I think, benefits our students.


Dmitri: For example, when Stephanie plays in an orchestral section, it would be leading as a concertmaster, yet blending. She would not be towering above the rest of the section because that’s not very good orchestral playing. It’s the same when I’m in the section. I’m trying to blend with my colleagues. When I’m playing soloist, I have to cut through, and it’s a completely different sound projection. It’s a completely different mindset. In fact, I was just teaching one of my students yesterday. She was preparing for the Reno Philharmonic auditions, playing a Dvorak concerto, and she was playing great as if she was in an orchestra section. I said, “You’re going to be by yourself. People are going to think you’re crazy if you do this. You’ve got to change things.” Also, it really helps to know how different halls respond. The fact that Stephanie organized a tour of the Argenta Trio this first semester and we got to play in different halls in Michigan (was interesting). That was a great experience for me because I got to hear the three of us outside of Nightingale where we don’t have to do a sound-check because we already know that it’s going to be a certain kind of acoustic.


Stephanie: Yeah. Those were nice halls. They were smaller than Nightingale Hall.


Jim: Every time we tour, we get a terrible case of concert venue envy. We love our Nightingale Hall, but it’s a little bit large, really, for chamber music. Then you go to these places that have smaller recital halls, where everything, as in Goldilocks, is just right.


Stephanie: That’s true.


Dmitri: I tried a few tricks last year. I tried to move the audience closer to the front and then also have a spotlight on us so that the rest of the stage is dark and it doesn’t feel like a large space. I don’t know how much that helped. This year I haven’t even tried that. Acoustically it doesn’t change anything. Acoustically we’re still playing in a large hall.


Forrest: I guess Nightingale is still acoustically the best spot here?


Jim: Oh yes.


Dmitri: And Nightingale is ours. This is our home. This feels right. We’re in the music department. Why should we go anywhere else?


Jim: Believe me, I’m not trashing our hall. I think we have a wonderful hall, but it’s a multi-purpose hall, so it’s a little bit large for ideal chamber music.


Forrest: I don’t think a lot of people understand exactly how the Argenta Trio works. It’s actually part of your contract at the university, right?


Stephanie: Forty percent is teaching, 40 percent is scholarly and creative activity and 20 percent is service. For us, the scholarly and creative activity means performing and recording CDs as performers. That’s why I was saying earlier in the interview that I just am so grateful that I’m here with this department. There are a lot of maybe more prestigious music schools and conservatories where the faculty ends up doing more teaching. They might have 90 percent teaching to 10 percent performing. That’s hard on a musician. It’s draining to teach because you’re listening so attentively and trying hard to say everything that needs to be said in this brief 50 to 60 minutes. Performing is also exhausting, but the balance is so great. We’re very fortunate that we have that balance here.


Jim: It really is part of the job descriptions that go out when one of these positions is searched, which is not the case of every position here. The trio seats are actually part of the search when someone retires. That’s listed as one of the duties.


Stephanie: We auditioned.


Dmitri: I was the last member to join the trio and part of my interview was actually to – on the spot, no rehearsal – just go and read something.


Jim: Well, kind of New York-style reading. We’d all practiced our parts. No one was sight-reading.


Dmitri: No. It wasn’t a surprise piece. They let me know in advance what I had to prepare for, but it was part of my interview. I had to teach. I had to play to prove that I can play the cello, and then I had to prove that I could collaborate.


Forrest: As a new member, was the trio one of the things that attracted you.


Dmitri: I’m not going to lie. What attracted me to this job was the fact that there was a job. When I took the job it was in 2009, and that was right after the time when there were no jobs. In fact, I think there were three positions open in the country. But I have to say this was by far the most welcoming job description I read. I felt as though I could provide good qualities to every single demand of the job description, teaching and playing.


Stephanie: That’s partially because he was young and didn’t want to only teach.


Dmitri: It wasn’t a situation where the university said, “Here’s 25,000 students.” My professor himself from Yale always said, “You can’t lose your chops. You can’t stop playing.” Because we could, theoretically, (lose our playing ability).


Stephanie: You know, that’s what Joe Silverstein said. Joe Silverstein is one of the biggest former concertmasters of the Boston Symphony. When I was still in San Antonio, he played and conducted a concerto, and at that point I was thinking about a teaching career. He said, “One piece of advice: Don’t lose your chops.” I thought that was very interesting that he said that, and it didn’t occur to me that I would. In some schools you do because you don’t get to play as much.

Dmitri: And students notice that.


Jim: Yes, and you lose their respect because you show them something and then you don’t sound good. The student will think, “Well, why am I going to follow your advice? That sounded awful.”


Dmitri: That’s when you stop playing altogether, and you say, “Do this, do that.”


Stephanie: When I was a college student, I learned as much from hearing my professors perform as I did in the lessons. I was so inspired by that.


Dmitri: That’s why I wish more of our students attended not just our performances but more concerts in general.


Forrest: Argenta has taken many forms over the years, and the three of you have been together for four years now. How much does the dynamic of a group like this change when you swap somebody out?


Stephanie: Tremendously.


Dmitri: Imagine every justice of the U.S. Supreme Court getting swapped out. How are the other two branches of government going to deal with it?


Jim: It’s amazing how it changes because, first of all, the basic formula of a trio is three discrete instruments. It’s not even similar to having two violins that are at least both violins. There’s a completely different instrumental approach for all three instruments. Then, you add new temperaments and new interpersonal relationships, and every picture changes. Before Dmitri came here, when we still had John, that was a completely different trio than this is. Before Stephanie was here, when we had Philip Ruder and John, a completely different trio. Before I got here, when they had Ron Williams, a completely different trio.


Stephanie: I think it was fresh air for me when Dmitri showed up. He was just coming out of schooling and he was actively – and still is – doing competitions. So, his chops are really up there. It was inspiring to have another string player who was so focused on solo playing and chamber music playing. For me, as a string player, it was really, really fun and exciting. A trio is really fun because it’s different than a quartet. In a string quartet, often the first violin or cello will have the solo. But in a piano trio, it’s three solo instruments that are playing some phrases as a chamber orchestra.


Dmitri: In a string quartet, the timbres of the instruments are very complimentary. The cellist can be leading but supporting and building on top of himself… There’s great focus on matching the bow strokes, the intonation. There’s a lot of this matching going on. In a trio, you have very disparate instruments. A piano has a very piano tone.


Stephanie: And articulation.


Jim: My bow technique is terrible.


Dmitri: Although we like to think of ourselves as equal partners, the piano probably has about 80 percent…


Stephanie: …more notes.


Dmitri: There are notes and there’s the harmonic language. The piano is your string quartet. Jim has to match his fingers. (Stephanie and I) are these two voices that are very individualistic. When Stephanie plays her phrase, I must respond to it. I don’t have to match her timbre or blend with her unless we play a unison or something, and it’s rare that a composer would do that.


Stephanie: Right, right. And the whole trio is more soloistic.


Dmitri: Especially when I have this machine (the piano) behind me playing right into my back. I start trying to cut through it.


Jim: I haven’t made your ears bleed yet.


Dmitri: No. Jim is doing an unbelievable job of balancing out, but the feeling is completely different than when you are in a string quartet. Here, you have this wave that makes you ride on top of it. I didn’t mean there was a balancing issue.


Forrest: With all the intricacies you’re dealing with, do you find that the group gets better the longer you’re together?


Jim: Any chamber ensemble does that unless you have so many interpersonal disagreements that you can’t get along.


Dmitri: Sometimes people just don’t click together. I think when you click, there’s nothing you can do but get better and better and better.


Stephanie: We have such three distinct personalities, but we have tremendous respect for each other musically and personally. When we did this little tour of Michigan, I said it would be cute to have a reality show about us because we are so different. We had Dmitri who was in charge of the driving and the navigating, and I arranged the tour. We’re so different but we had a great time.


Dmitri: Sometimes the more similar you are, the closer you are to being the same poles of the magnet. We know how to find our areas. We all have, also, external lives to the trio, which I find healthy.


Stephanie: We bring things from our outside experience to the trio. For instance, I played a Babadjanian trio with some other group in Houston. I came back and I said, “You guys, I played this great piece, Babadjanian.” Then, we played it and we love playing it. When they (Jim and Dmitri) go play with other people, they bring repertoire ideas back to the trio. It’s very stimulating for us I think.


Dmitri: It’s good because it also keeps things fresh. I learn from the two of them, but I also learn from other players. When we bring a violist into the group, it’s so interesting to see how different they are and how different we start interacting when you add a little pinch of new into the soup. It’s good that we’re different, I find, because I get to learn so much from the two of them.


Stephanie: If we came from the same perspective, it could be boring, but we always have different ideas.


Dmitri: And I’ve never felt that it is stopping us from achieving our goal. We sometimes pull in three different directions, but the next day we find out that the whole thing actually moved five miles. That’s great. Now, we’re somewhere else.


Forrest: It’s interesting that you brought up your different personalities because sometimes you find that group members settle into differing key roles. For instance, somebody might be the joker and somebody might be the leader. Do you find that to be true with you?


Dmitri: For me it’s a very outside thing. I feel like Stephanie is kind of the organizer of the group and Jim is the wise musician.


Jim: I’m the one who has too many notes to learn, so that’s all I have time for.


Dmitri: He is the starter of the broth. I don’t know what I am.


Stephanie: One thing that’s great about Dmitri is, if there ever is an inkling of any conflict in the group, in a rehearsal, he breaks the ice. He makes us laugh, and I like that about him. He does not like conflict.


Dmitri: So, I’m the trio clown-pacifier.


Stephanie: He also listens really well. He’s not just listening to his own part. I have to say – because I’ve played in a lot of piano trios in my life – the cellist sometimes is only involved in his own thing, whereas Dmitri is not. Dmitri is always listening, so he always has feedback to give me as the violinist, feedback to give Jim as the pianist. I like that. If I played with someone who never gave me any feedback, I wouldn’t get better. That’s what I tell my students. “When you’re in a chamber group, it’s each of your responsibilities to make the group sound great. So, if you think the violist is sharp, you tell the violist. If you think the cellist is rushing, tell the cellist.” That’s what’s so great about chamber music. I really appreciate that Dmitri is a really good listener. So is Jim. They’re always telling me things to help my playing, to help me play a phrase better.


Jim: If I had to categorize you in the group, Dmitri, I’d say you’re the battery. He’s an inexhaustible supply of positive energy.


Dmitri: Wait ’til I blow up. (Laughs)


Forrest: You mentioned conflict and how Dmitri makes it go away. Do you ever run into a situation where one of you refuses to bend?


Jim: None of us is that rigid. I think it’s because we’ve all had experiences playing with people who were, and we thought, “This wasn’t fun. I’m not going to be that person.”


Dmitri: I think we also know very well how to leave it alone, so it never gets to that position. I think in younger groups you find that it starts to get personal as opposed to musical. Back when I was learning chamber music, I had this great disagreement. I was playing a Brahms trio with a violinist, and we had just completely different views. I felt that we could not find communication. It wasn’t hatred. It was just that we were from two different planets. I went to a mentor to figure out how to solve this problem, and this very wise man told me, “Don’t think about what’s best for the group. You are nothing. Think about what is best for Brahms because he wrote this great music, and you dare to play it.” That, for me, moved the goal away from myself and, “How am I going to play my phrase?” It became, “How would Brahms like me to play my phrase?” If I’m in a difficult situation, I will try to solve it by thinking about how to make this the best music, not how to prove that I am right or Jim is wrong. I find that we, as a more experienced group, sense those disagreements coming on and step away from them. Then they solve themselves.


Stephanie: Sometimes if we try to solve a problem in a rehearsal and we just can’t agree, we’ll say, “Well, let’s live with it.” Then, over the next week or two, it will come clearly to all of us what we should do. Something I try to do in my own personal life is never quarrel with my children. It’s not worth it. It’s the same thing with my colleagues. Don’t ever get to a point where you’re quarreling personally because it’s just not worth it.


Dmitri: And it’s not personal.


Forrest: You say the piece you may be struggling with just comes together through continued playing?


Stephanie: Uh-huh.


Dmitri: It’s as though you keep reading the same poem and it doesn’t make sense to you. Then, you realize, “Oh, actually this is what it means.”


Jim: The thing is, every time you play it, subtle things change. Part of that process is that the computer (in our brains) has been programmed so that Stephanie would like this to happen here and I would like that to happen there and Dmitri would like the other. Whether we initially agreed or not, the fact that new information is now in the computer starts to permeate, and you come up with a viable version that everyone can get behind, even if it’s not the absolute extreme version that you had first envisioned.


Dmitri: And we all agree when something’s not working right… So, the problem is not that there’s my way and there’s the wrong way. The problem is always that something is not convincing enough. When we start searching for the common convincement of each other, that’s when we find, often, a fourth way that none of us thought of. It just materializes out of basically grinding the edges. I was watching a Steve Jobs interview. He’s my idol in a sense, and he was saying that he had an experience where a person showed him a rock polisher, where he threw some stones into a thing that just rotated, and the next day beautiful rocks came out. Sometimes out of conflict, out of just the pure energy of going through it many times, beauty comes out that you never thought was there in the first place.


Forrest: How do you decide what repertoire you are going to play during a season?


Stephanie: We just discuss it.


Jim: We come up with ideas. We do listening and prospecting. We each have our favorite places to go look and see if we can find something we haven’t thought of before. Then, because we’ve all done this for awhile, we know a lot of the regular repertoire. Balancing a season is similar to programming for any sort of musical organization. You don’t want to play all the same stuff because you get bored, but if you don’t play any of the same stuff, the audience goes, “Who?” and they don’t show up.


Stephanie: We often try to include a contemporary composer on each program, or a composer that no one has heard of but we think is valuable.


Dmitri: Maybe because I’m the youngest member of the group and because I didn’t play many piano trios in college – I was much more string quartet oriented – there are all these tons of pieces that I’ve yet to play. So, I’m the luckiest of the three because I get to play all these great pieces of music that I’ve always admired. I know them from watching other people play them, but they’re still ahead of me in my discovery… Take Babadjanian, for example. I knew of that trio back in the day. My parents used to play it. It was so great when Stephanie suggested it. I said, “Yes. That’s a great piece. Let’s do that.” That’s something I’m looking forward to playing, but I have not yet experienced it. For me, it’s constant discovery. Even old repertoire is new for me.


Stephanie: So, we discuss, and we set our program. But there have been a couple times where we set our program, then two months before our program, we start to work on something and decide, “You know what? We don’t like this piece.” Then, we replace it. But that’s rare.


Jim: That happens sometimes with repertoire that none of us really knows. We’ll have heard a recording online or something and thought, “Well, that sounds kind of interesting.” Then, you get down to working on it and it doesn’t speak to you.


Stephanie: It not worth the time.


Jim: I’ll be sitting on the piano and think, “I’m not having fun.” Then, I’ll say, “Stephanie. I’m really having trouble with this.” She’ll say, “Me too.”


Stephanie: We did that one year. Was it last year? We had one female composer on each program because I thought it would be nice to do that. So we had, of course, Clara Schumann. That was a no brainer because it’s fantastic music. But we had picked something else, and we got to it and we didn’t like it so much… Then, we started digging and we found another piece.


Dmitri: That was Lera Auerbach (that we cut). She is a very famous, very fine composer, but it was a student work, and I think whoever recorded it put a ton of effort into making it sound really convincing. It was probably written for them to premiere, and we just didn’t have the same commitment to that work that it required. I don’t think there are bad compositions.


Jim: Oh, there are bad compositions.


Stephanie: There are less-effective compositions.


Dmitri: Yes. There are less-effective compositions. There are compositions that are not worth the time to make them good.


Stephanie: We thought, “If we don’t want to play it, then the audience might not want to listen to it.”

Jim: It’s a direct result. If we can’t find something to get behind, we’re not going to sell it well enough for the audience to enjoy it.


Dmitri: (In programming), I always tell myself, “There’s always Haydn.” If we can’t agree on something, there are a ton of (classic) trios. The repertoire is so rich that you can just immediately go to the gold and pick any coin you want. You know it’s going to be a jewel. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, there’s so much richness that we don’t have to go far to find great music.


Stephanie: We have fun programming. Everybody always brings a lot of ideas to the table, so it’s really very rich.


Forrest: The three of you get to pick the pieces on your own?


Stephanie: That’s right. No one has to approve it. It’s fantastic.


Forrest: Sometimes there can be outside pressure for a group to play something more commercial.


Jim: Whatever pressure of that nature exists, we apply it to ourselves because we do want an audience. But we don’t have a board in that sense, and we don’t have someone second-guessing our programming.


Forrest: I’m interested in your thoughts on Reno’s classical music scene. For a city of its size, it seems to have a lot going on.


Stephanie: That’s one of the things that attracted me to the job, actually. I started coming here with the Nevada Chamber Music Festival three years before I got the job. I was really impressed when I heard, “They have a philharmonic, they have a chamber orchestra, they have a little opera, they have some ballet.” Reno has 400,000 people, and I was coming from San Antonio, which is about the eighth largest city in the United States, and they have a struggling orchestra. I was very excited to be here because we, in the university community, really benefit when the Philharmonic brings in a guest soloist that we get to hear. And the Chamber Orchestra does the same thing. We benefit from this rich cultural life here in Reno.


Dmitri: I feel that we have a dedicated following. It’s small still for Argenta, but there’s a draw for symphonic music. There are people who haven’t discovered the chamber music yet who might discover it and enjoy it. I feel that symphonic music is more popular than chamber because people don’t know the chamber music, and the size of the symphony is impressive. But I see this kernel of people who go to pretty much everything, and we meet them everywhere. It’s so amazing that they’re so supportive.


Jim: It’s part of the demographics of Reno itself… We have a lot of people who have come here because of our tax climate who, all of their lives, lived in much bigger cultural centers. (Classical music) is part of their lives. It’s something they expect out of life, and it’s one of the reasons they chose Reno as opposed to Las Vegas, which for the longest time did not have nearly as much (classical music) even though it had a much bigger population.


Forrest: Obviously, Argenta is a huge part of the university culture. Where do you see yourselves in the broad scope of the Reno classical music scene?


Dmitri: I feel that we’re fulfilling that niche of chamber music. There’s a need, and for some people a still-undiscovered need to explore repertoire by great composers they are very familiar with. Everybody’s heard Beethoven symphonies, but how many trios did Beethoven write? They don’t know because they haven’t heard that many, and it’s much more personal repertoire, where the composers truly expressed themselves at their most intimate. They did not have the benefit of a large commission or a large presentation… I feel that we’re bringing that repertoire, and we’re bringing new music. We’re much more adventurous than a symphony orchestra could allow itself to be.


Jim: The formation of the Nevada Chamber Music Festival in the winter has put the idea of chamber music on a bigger map than it had before. There are a lot of people who hadn’t considered it before that got very excited about it, and they started to look at some of the other possibilities, including us. For the longest time, Argenta and its various permutations was really the core of the chamber music culture here (in Reno). I think we still kind of have that. Once a week in winter – as the Nevada Chamber Music Festival advertising goes – Reno is the center of the chamber music universe. The rest of the year, we’re kind of the center of the Reno chamber music universe, if that’s not too immodest to say.


Stephanie: Still, we would like to gain even more exposure.


Jim: We feel that, particularly right now, this is good enough for the national and international stage if we can just make that happen.


Stephanie: Yes, and I think that’s very possible.


Forrest: What is next?


Stephanie: We want to keep recording. Our next project we have scheduled is to do the complete trios by Robert and Clara Schumann. There are four trios, three by Robert and one by Clara. After that, we are thinking of doing a CD of contemporary living composers, and some Nevada composers may be in the mix… We want to play at Carnegie. We want to play in Las Vegas at their big, new hall, and we want to do more touring.


Forrest: I suppose Argenta becomes a better recruiting tool for the university the better known it gets. Is that true?


Jim: Oh yes. The university has been very supportive, and that’s absolutely the reason why. They see the positive benefits to all concerned by our being able to continue doing what we’re doing at the best level we can.