One in the chamber
There has been an Argenta Trio, in some formation, for over 40 years. Founded as the University of Nevada, Reno Faculty Trio by Ron Williams in 1961, the chamber music ensemble is the university’s answer to the Dread Pirate Roberts: not one group, but a revolving cast.
James Winn, pianist, is the senior member of the current incarnation of the Argenta Trio. He recalls discovering his family’s piano at age 4, and not being able to keep away from it.
“There’s a stereotype in movies of the parents that want to force the kid into music, when he really wants to be outside playing ball,” says Winn. “I was the kid that didn’t want to play ball.”
Violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio’s introduction to music was less voluntary. Her father was a professional cellist who had to prod her every day to practice.
“Then in ninth grade, something just clicked,” says Sant’Ambrogio. She traveled with the St. Louis Youth Orchestra to some of the most sacred sites of classical music, including Austria and Italy.
“I turned 16 in Vienna with a beer,” she laughs.
Though the current members of Argenta Trio, Winn, Sant’Ambrogio and cellist Dmitri Atapine, have worked with orchestras, they agree that chamber music is where their talents are best spent.
“Chamber music has always been my favorite,” says Winn. “It allows for the most individual intensity. It’s a very intimate musical conversation.”
“It’s like a dinner party,” says Sant’Ambrogio. “Everyone has their own opinion to bring to the table.”
The smaller setting also allows Winn to explore his own compositions. When his parents realized their child wasn’t going to stop playing piano, they decided to get him lessons. His teacher was an apprentice of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. This imparted a lasting impression of Finnish culture and music on him. In his latest composition, Winn draws from the epic Finnish book of poetry, the Kalevala.
The concerto, divided into three parts, is a mix of eclectic influences both musical and literary. The first, a nocturne, is inspired by a satirical novel by Thorne Smith, in which a group of amateur occultists try to summon Venus for an orgy. A botched translation instead summons the goddess of the hunt, who also happens to be the goddess of chastity.
The second movement draws inspiration from Winn’s own Celtic heritage. The piece is inspired by “The Legend of Tomlin,” in which a married man is seduced by a Fairy Queen. A Celtic-influenced melody is introduced to represent the earnest love of his wife before the music descends into a wild and strange detour. The piece ends with the Celtic theme—the wife’s love—returning.
The final movement is an ode to a Finnish legend from the Kalevala that explains why the sea is salty. A magical mill that grinds salt is stolen by an evil witch. To represent the grinding, the violin plays rapid, jarring tremolo. The witch can’t figure out how to make the grinding stop, so she puts the mill by the sea, where it continually dumps its product.
Argenta Trio’s passion for music extends to organizing festivals both locally and abroad. Atapine has been bringing international names to UNR’s stage for three years, and Sant’Ambrogio organizes the Cactus Pear Festival in San Antonio annually.
Despite their success, the members agree that times are tough for musicians of all kinds. Many orchestras around the country aren’t finding the right budgets. Winn believes that intellectual endeavors are increasingly considered effete.
In the face of this musical recession, the members of Argenta Trio advise young musicians to stay multifaceted, and to leave themselves open to diverse opportunities.