Take a bow
Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio reaches into a black music case lined with blue velvet and draws out her 1757 Guadagnini violin. The toffee-colored wood curves delicately, and she places it under her chin with the ease of someone who’s been playing since she was 5 years old. Her bow crosses its strings, and the room hums with its vibration. With no frets or keys, this is an instrument of feeling, intuition and skill.
She reaches into the same case and extracts her viola, an instrument much like the violin but more robust and deeper in pitch.
“It’s like you’re having an affair with the viola,” she says. “Because it’s like the violin, but it’s not. … It’s so rich and deep, it’s like butterscotch.”
Sheet music for Henri Vieuxtemps’ “Elegie, Op. 30” for viola and piano sits on a black music stand in her home in Southwest Reno. It’s one of the pieces she’s preparing for her Oct. 20 recital debut as the new assistant professor of violin and viola at the University of Nevada, Reno. In taking the UNR position, she also became the newest member of UNR’s chamber music group Argenta, filling the vacant space left by recently retired professor and violinist Phillip Ruder. Rounding out the trio are pianist James Winn, who’ll perform with her at her recital, and cellist John Lenz.
Her recital will include works for both viola and violin. It opens with Brahms’ “Sonatensatz” and continues with Mozart’s “Sonata in B flat, K. 454. The most contemporary of selections follows with Lukas Foss’ “Three American Pieces.” Then comes the Vieuxtemps “Elegie.” It ends with “Sonata No. 3 in C minor, Op. 45” by Grieg.
Sant’Ambrogio carries an air of someone who knows about self-discipline. Having just moved to Reno in August, she was concertmaster for the past 12 years with the San Antonio Symphony. She founded the Cactus Pear chamber music festival there, and she remains its artistic director.
She comes from a long line of musicians. Her grandmother, Isabelle Sant’Ambrogio, was a concert pianist who founded the Red Fox Music Camp, which ran for 25 years in the Berkshire Mountains. Her father, John Sant’Ambrogio, was principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony. Her sister, Sara Sant’Ambrogio, is a Grammy Award-winning cellist with the Eroica Trio.
Stephanie’s active performing career has taken her all over the world. Now in her mid-40s, and with two young daughters (ages 6 and 8) and a husband, she’d been looking for a more balanced work and home life. Reno Chamber Orchestra conductor Theodore Kuchar, whom she knew from performing in the Nevada Chamber Music Festival, suggested she apply for the UNR teaching position.
“I’m excited to finally be doing this full-time,” she says. “I taught lessons for years, but I’ve been playing in orchestra for 24 years.” She says she now has more time to focus on her two main passions—teaching and chamber music.
“Chamber music is the best,” she says. “It’s more intimate, like bringing the audience into your living room. No one is telling you how to phrase something; no one is conducting. You’re deciding that for yourself.”
Performing is still a large element of her job description, and she wouldn’t take it away.
“I just feel alive when I’m onstage,” she says.
Meanwhile, she returns to the music stand, dissecting each measure until it comes naturally.
“It’s like a sculpture,” she says. “Every day I keep chipping away and chipping away, until one day, I have this beautiful structure. It never gets old.”