Making beautiful music together


For two centuries of music history, eroica, the Italian word for "heroic," has been known exclusively as the nickname of Ludwig van Beethoven's heroically scaled Third Symphony.

That has changed since 1986, when pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Adela Pena and cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio came together to form the Eroica Trio.

Now, 17 years later with five EMI recordings and several Grammy nominations in hand, these three virtuosos are bringing their artistry to some of the most distinguished concert venues in the world.

On Saturday evening, they will visit Smith Theatre to perform music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Paul Schoenfield under the auspices of Columbia's Candlelight Concert Society.

"We actually started playing together even earlier, way back when we were 12," says Sant'Ambrogio. "If there's a hallmark to our playing, it's that we are so attuned to each other musically and psychically that we achieve a real fluidity when we perform. It's an incredible feeling to catch nuances in someone else's playing and respond to them, already knowing and trusting what's in the other's mind."

That rarefied level of interaction -- the very essence of chamber playing -- seems almost to have been implanted in this threesome by family and by fate.

Erika Nickrenz and Sara Sant' Ambrogio studied piano and chamber music with Isabelle Sant'Ambrogio, the cellist's grandmother, while Adela Pena and her cellist colleague both studied with Sara's father and first teacher, John Sant'Ambrogio, longtime principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony.

Another coach in the trio's formative years was Erika Nickrenz's father, Scott Nickrenz, an eminent violist.

Completing the family circle is Erika's mother, Joanna Nickrenz, a three-time Grammy Award-winning producer who has handled the trio's five EMI recordings.

"The most wonderful thing about the depth of the relationship we have already," says Sara Sant'Ambrogio, "is that we still have so much further to go."

Eroica will lend its artistry to Beethoven's youthful yet profound Opus 11 and Mendelssohn's intense C minor Trio.

Also on the bill is Schoenfield's Cafe Music, a melange of ragtime, jazz, African-American spirituals and Chasidic melodies.

When these three beautiful women take the concert stage, any image of chamber music as the sole province Mishas, Jaschas and Sashas of generations past is shattered.

"Let's face it, if we were in any other field, nobody would even mention our looks," Sara Sant' Ambrogio said. "But classical music has been male-dominated for so long that it is shocking to see young women on stage and on jacket covers.

"But, hey, I'm going to save the pictures so when my kids call me an old fogey some day, I can point to them and say, 'Your mom didn't look so bad back then, did she?'"

The Candlelight Concerts Society will present Eroica Trio at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Smith Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $29 general admission; $26 for seniors; and $12 for full-time students. Reservations and information: 410-480-9950 or www.candlelight

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