Concert review: Sant’Ambrogio’s local influence |

Concert review: Sant’Ambrogio’s local influence

Charlie Bates and John Wittum

For the Steamboat Springs Orchestra, each season finale is another milestone. Thanks to Music Director/Conductor Ernest Richardson and the excellence of the musicians, the repertory is expanded in a manner commensurate with an improvement in technical virtuosity. Of course, many of the musicians could hold their own in ensembles of the highest caliber anywhere. Such is John Sant'Ambrogio, the featured cello soloist in the first selection, Dvorak's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, a piece that Sant'Ambrogio observed, as he and his beyond-priceless cello were breaking trail through the throngs after the concert, is the most difficult piece for cello ever composed.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was born in a village north of Prague. His family survived as innkeepers and butchers. Music was his way out. He graduated from the Prague Organ School in 1859. He then began a career as a violist. He was very poor. He first attained recognition with the publication of "Slavonic Dances" in 1878 and then became progressively more renowned and better paid. In 1892, he became the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a post he held for only three years. He was homesick, likely missing immersion in the high-brow cultivated Bohemian society, which may in part have led him to vacation in the Bohemian settlement at Spillville, Iowa. It was there that he absorbed the fundamentally American folk themes that color the symphony we heard Sunday, "From the New World."

Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104, B 191 is in three movements, Allegro, Adagio ma non troppo, and Allegro moderato. It begins with the introduction of themes by the entire orchestra, forceful but evocative of nature with apparent bird calls. The concert ends with a fading away followed by one last magnificent crescendo. There are a couple of melancholy passages, as Dvorak's sister had taken ill and died while he was working on it. Sliding notes, uncommon in classical compositions, and double and triple stops are extremely demanding of the solo cellist.

Symphony No. 9: "From the New World" has a simple, easily recognizable theme which is reiterated throughout the four movements: Adagio, Largo, Scherzo, and Allegro con fuoco. The theme is simple, as Dvorak wanted it to be a popular success, which it was and still is. The theme is repeated by various instruments, but most interestingly by the solo French horn played by Bill Fetcher in the second movement and backed by the full orchestra. At the end, the tympani are dominant.

The Strings Pavilion is beautiful and its acoustics flawless. It is a perfect venue for our fine orchestra but already is nearly too small for the future.

In addition to recognizing Sant'Ambrogio's superb virtuosity on the cello, we would like to pay tribute to his many, long-standing, and often unacknowledged contributions to classical music in Steamboat Springs. Almost uncannily dup­licating the approach undertaken by cultural pioneers Portia Mansfield and Charlotte Perry, Sant'Ambrogio was the first to bring professionally presented classical music to our town in a form that allowed the public to listen to, and students to learn from, the master musicians who also taught at Steamboat's first music camp.

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Dubbing that summer camp "Strings in the Mountains," Sant'Ambrogio, who then played first chair cello at the St. Louis Symphony, brought with him in the mid-1980s expert musicians from other reputable orchestras to perform and teach at the Storm Meadows condos, where students and faculty were housed and fed, and where the first free public concerts of classical music were performed at the Gallery Restaurant or on its deck overlooking the ski area. We can easily remember local residents crowding the porches, and even the gables, to listen to those first concerts.

It is not without deep significance that Richardson introduced Sant'Ambrogio at Sunday evening's concert as his "friend and mentor." After Strings in the Mountains morphed into an entirely professional organization without a student component, Sant'Ambrogio continued to manage his summer music camp for string players and later made Steamboat his full-time residence. Not long afterward, Richardson, who became the Steamboat Springs Orchestra's director, instituted the Rocky Mountain Summer Conservatory at The Lowell Whiteman School. This summer camp, seemingly replicating Sant'Ambrogio's earlier model, has from its first year enrolled aspiring string players to be taught by master musicians who, together and separately, present free classical music concerts for the public's benefit at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

We find it no exaggeration to state that Sant'Ambrogio has followed the cultural pioneering steps of Portia and Charlotte, bringing to Steamboat Springs artistic excellence, expert instruction and exceptional public performances. As the Perry-Mansfield ladies were belatedly recognized for what they had accomplished for our town, let us not wait long to acknowledge Sant'Ambrogio as the father and progenitor of classical music, professionally played and taught, in Steamboat Springs.

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