Steamboat Chamber Orchestra expands music to community, musicians
February 20, 2014
Retirement for celebrated local cellist John Sant'Ambrogio is as busy as ever. And his latest endeavor started around Christmas with the founding of the Steamboat Chamber Orchestra.
The idea sparked last summer when a mutual friend introduced him to violinist Paul Chou.
Sant'Ambrogio and Chou immediately hit it off and found they had a lot in common. For one, they discovered that Chou had attended school with Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio, John's daughter and also an accomplished violinist.
Chou spent a decade on Wall Street before becoming a professor of music and endowed chair at Lehigh University, where he founded the orchestra program.
The brilliant and energetic pair's goal is to have the new and growing Chamber Orchestra — currently with about 15 members — play once per month at the Chief Theater. They've played two shows to date.
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Sant'Ambrogio emphasized that the new orchestra is in no way a competitor to the Steamboat Symphony Orchestra or any other entity, but rather a way to expand opportunities for orchestra music to the community of listeners and to local musicians.
Other than Chou, the orchestra's conductor, who resides in Washington, D.C., the musicians all live in the valley and range from students to established artists.
With tickets at just $10, it's also a way to make the music more accessible to everyone and to draw in newcomers.
Chou sees it as part of a national trend — in part driven by economic forces but also by a desire to make the experience of orchestra music more personal, and more engaging of its audience.
He said he also is excited about making music that is relevant, depicting life and the emotions that go with it.
"Art doesn't have to be only for people in tuxedos drinking Champagne," Chou said. Whether hip-hop or chamber music, "art, no matter what, tells a story. And when you can engage in that, people find it more meaningful."
Sant'Ambrogio said their first show was so much fun and got such a great response that he immediately knew he wanted to keep it going.
As the founder and first artistic director of Strings in the Mountains in 1987, Sant'Ambrogio's love of Steamboat and devotion to bringing music to the town goes back nearly three decades.
"Art and nature are closely aligned," he said, and then referenced Beethoven, who spent his mornings writing music and his afternoons walking in nature.
There's no shortage of inspiration in Steamboat Springs, he said, calling it "one of the most beautiful places in the world."
And Chou, an avid skier, has long loved the town's "charm and personality" along with its powdery slopes.
After 46 years playing in major orchestras, Sant'Ambrogio said the more casual and intimate setting and diversity of the group is "fun for me." He calls it retirement but has no intention of ever stopping playing.
The Chief Theater as a venue adds to the experience, especially by giving the audience a chance to get very close to the orchestra.
Moving forward, Sant'Ambrogio said he sees more solos featuring the local artists and ideally a regular gig during First Friday Artwalks, giving an accompanying audial component to the event.
Chou said he's delighted to be part of the group and commends Sant'Ambrogio's ability to dream and to "make dreams happen for other people."
The skills that Chou said he developed as a musician — critical and analytical thinking, discipline, mathematics, improvisation, abstract analysis, teamwork — have brought value to every aspect of his life. He works as a global recruiter and said he encourages young people to study music for its multitude of benefits, whether they make a living playing.
Chou also notes that his family is "inspired by the possibility of being in Steamboat full-time."
Chou's 9-year-old son, who has been playing the violin since he was 2, loves to ski but recently decided he wants to try snowboarding.
The orchestra has been able to pay for Chou to come to Steamboat, Sant'Ambrogio said, and he anticipates that he soon would be able to pay the musicians, as well. More than anything, it's about devotion to the music, he said.
The next performance is expected for April.