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You can go home again: Cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio joins up with noted father at Cellofest 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2010 - Renowned cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio has had May 11 circled on her calendar for some time.

That's when she returns to her hometown of St. Louis to play a show at the Sheldon along with her father, a former principal cellist with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and a dozen members of the symphony's youth orchestra, of which she is an alumna.

And if that isn't enough of a reason to energize Sant'Ambrogio, who's in the midst of a cross-country tour, then the chance to share the stage with a range of cellos -- and no other instruments during the entire performance -- puts her over the top.

"The cello makes such a rich sound and there's nothing better than having a whole bunch of cellos on stage," Sant'Ambrogio said during a phone interview from Los Angeles.

She enthusiastically referred to her upcoming concert as a "cello extravaganza." The official title of the evening is the more restrained "Cellofest 2010," a concert that is part of the Sheldon's "Notes from Home" series.

Piano was Sant'Ambrogio's first instrument, but the cello was her first love. As a child growing up in Boston, she had a short but definitive birthday wish list: a cello, a puppy or a pony. She got the cello at age 6 once the family moved to St. Louis and left the piano behind. She got the puppy years later. She's still waiting for the pony.

Years later, the Grammy award-winning Sant'Ambrogio still speaks of her favorite instrument in gushing terms.

"I've always loved the idea that when you play the cello, you hold it in your arms," she said. "It feels like a living being, like a friend. I love the range of the instrument. It seems more human and as a shy, tongue-tied child I felt like the cello was my voice. I've felt for a long time that I have had an actual relationship with the instrument."

That relationship intensified during the years when Sant'Ambrogio lived in University City and Des Peres. Sara's father, accomplished cellist John Sant'Ambrogio, said he could tell from a young age that his daughter had the talent to play professionally.

"She would ask me for lessons, but I was pretty sure that she was better than me," said John, who is author of the book "The Day I Almost Destroyed the Boston Symphony and Other Stories."

But he went out of his way not to pressure her into following in his footsteps.

"I was glad she was going to play cello, but I wanted to be careful not to push too hard," John Sant'Ambrogio said. "At one point of my life when I was first studying piano I felt pressure from my parents [who were musicians], and I didn't do as well."

Added Sara: "He was concerned that I would feel like I was in his shadow," she said. "But I only took positive things from him being a cellist. It was great to have someone playing at such a high level in the home every day."

When Sara temporarily decided to quit the cello around the age of 14, her father said he was tempted to persuade her to think otherwise. He said he decided to lay off. A year later, after seeing her friends enjoying playing their instruments at a summer music camp, John said her daughter decided to pick up the cello again.

By age 16, she had become such a cello prodigy that the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia accepted her on a full scholarship.

Winning the International Tchaikovsky Violoncello Competition in Moscow nearly 25 years ago helped launch Sant' Ambrogio's career. Carnegie Hall soon invited her to perform in a recital that earned her national acclaim.

She has since performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras across the world and collaborated with the likes of a ballet company, a rock group and a hip-hop artist. Sant'Ambrogio is also a founding member of the group Eroica Trio.

In recent years, Sant'Ambrogio has had the chance to perform with her father at venues across the country.

"We're very compatible; it's a delight to play together," John said.

Despite the fact that she trained under him for years, Sara said, "You couldn't get two more different players than my father and I." She describes herself as an emotional player who is intimate with the audience and her father as "coming from an earlier time that bred players who are more removed and elegant."

Catherine Lehr, the St. Louis Symphony assistant principal cellist who created Cellofest in 2008, said she "thought about Sara for this performance because she has such a wide, expansive, expressive way of playing."

The father-daughter duo will perform "Dialogue for Two Cellos with Orchestra," a piece from former St. Louis Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin. They will be joined by the 16- to 18-year-old students from the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Young cellists also were featured at Cellofest two years ago. "High school kids are always auditioning against each other, but I thought, 'Why can't we have a concert with all of them?'" Lehr said.

Sant'Ambrogio said she looks forward to both teaching and performing with the young musicians while she is in town. "Any time you can play and talk with young cellists it's a good opportunity to share what you've learned and hear about what's motivating them," she said.

The organizers of Cellofest have invited Youth Orchestra cello alums to play the final piece of the evening along with the current youth cellists. (Lehr said she expects roughly 10 alums to be on stage.)

Among the other pieces on the program are Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, Fitzenhagen's Ave Maria and Youth Orchestra alum Peter Myers' arrangement of "It's a-me, it's a-Mario."

At least six cellists and as many as 26 cellos are always on stage at one time during the performance.

"There's a lot of great music for a cello choir," Lehr said. "The instrument goes really low and really high, which makes it particularly good for a choir arrangement."

Before she takes the stage at the Sheldon, Sant' Ambrogio on Saturday is performing Johann Sebastian Bach at the Borders in Brentwood. Her solo performance is free and open to the public. 

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