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Tucson Weekly Women Of Culture

The Eroica Trio Arrives, All Dressed Up With Everywhere To Go.

By Dave Irwin

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  SOMETIMES IT'S LIKE a fairy tale: three childhood friends accidentally discover they have a power to make music that delights beyond all expectations.

The Eroica Trio found that magical moment the first time they played together as students at Julliard. Pianist Erica Nickrenz and violinist Adela Peña first played together at age 9. Cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio met Nickrenz at age 12, when Nickrenz was taking lessons from Sant'Ambrogio's grandmother. They started playing together at age 15. Finally, in 1986, all three got together for a casual student run-through of Mendelssohn's Trio in C minor, Op. 66.

"It was in a Julliard practice room just to read together," Nickrenz remembers. "We were playing the exposition of the first movement. We could have just screamed. It was great!"

"We just knew that we would die if we didn't play together as a trio," adds Sant'Ambrogio. "There was no choice. We would have walked through fire to get to where we are now."

Nickrenz notes, "It was kind of amazing because there was no agonizing decision making. We'd played in groups with lots of other people at that point, so we knew when it was good. From that first day we took it very seriously and had a game plan to make it our lives."

The Eroica Trio will perform in Tucson on February 10. The program will include Arnold Shoenberg's Verklacte Nacht, Op. 4, and Eduardo Lalo's Trio in D minor, Op. 7. The centerpiece will be the world premier of a work commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music by composer Raimundo Penaforte.

According to Penaforte, each section of the three-movement work is named after the composer that inspired it. Astor, influenced by the tango, is named after Argentine composer Astor Piazolla. The second movement, Maurice, was inspired by Penaforte's hearing the Trio play the Passacaglia section of Ravel's Trio in A minor. It features a blues progression in the bass parts with solos above. The third movement is Capiba, named after the famous Brazilian composer.

"This is like the height of decadence," Sant'Ambrogio says by phone from a five-star resort on Lanai, Hawaii, in between engagements on a four-island concert tour. They're watching dolphins from the balcony of Sant'Ambrogio's beach-side suite. Named after Beethoven's Eroica Symphony ("heroic" in Italian), the trio plays approximately 80 concerts a year. From the start, their tight ensemble playing caught the attention of critics.

"We've evolved through being together for so long," Nickrenz explains. "We imitate each other's gestures and we play like one person. We finish each other's sentences."

Maybe so, but each member has strong credentials. Sant'Ambrogio comes from a line of musicians stretching back 600 years. Her father is principal cellist with the St. Louis Symphony, where the trio will perform the Beethoven Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56, in March. She has been playing since she was 2 years old. Her awards include first place in the all-Julliard Shumann Competition, and taking a 1986 bronze medal in the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Cello Competition. "We were very prepared for how hard it is to achieve what we've been able to achieve," she says.

Nickrenz also hails from a musical family, but she started playing later in life--at age 6. She's been a featured soloist on PBS' Live from Lincoln Center, and has played the Tanglewood and Marlboro festivals. Her father, a violist, is a founder of the Lenox, Claremont and Vermeer Quartets. Nickrenz does not apologize for the elegant image Eroica has created.

"As young women, we're attracted to wearing beautiful gowns," she concedes. "Just being comfortable on stage, we wear sleeveless or very strappy gowns because we want to have a lot of freedom playing. It's part of the show, to feel in character to perform. If we went out there in jeans, it just wouldn't reflect who we are as people."

As a teenager, Peña won the Julliard Mendelssohn Violin Competition. She has served as concertmaster for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a vital position in that conductorless ensemble. She notes that AFCM requested that they perform Verklacte Nacht, which was originally written for string sextet. "It was transcribed by a student of Shoenberg's, Edward Steurmann," she explains. "It's an amazing expansion on the piece. It lends a whole new voice with the piano. You get the string sonority and then you get the sheer volume and power and scariness that the piano can create. It's the perfect piece for us to do."

Their image may precede them, but the Eroica Trio is about solid musicianship. Nickrenz admonishes, "If part of the package is having beautiful outfits, it's certainly not the focus of our working together. It was surprising to us when people started talking about this glamorous image. It's just who we are, but thank you for calling it glamorous."


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