As told to Greg Cahill
Sara Sant’Ambrogio is best known as the cellist of two-time Grammy Award-nominated Eroica Trio, but her career extends to solo performances with orchestras around the world, four solo albums, and concert dates at prominent festivals. She has performed with the pop singers Sting, Rufus Wainwright, and Angela McCluskey, and has recorded with the alt-rock group Vast.
A winner of the Tchaikovsky International Violoncello Competition in Russia, Sant’Ambrogio won a 1991 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for her recording of Bernstein arias and barcarolles. Tracks from her 2004 solo CD Dreaming were featured on the soundtracks for the documentary Jones Beach Boys, the HBO documentary A Matter of Taste, and the fly-fishing film Kiss the Water. And she has taught at universities and festivals throughout the world. At the time of this interview, Sant’Ambrogio was quarantined in New York City, having recovered from a COVID-19 infection.
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players are staying in touch with their audience or students during the global coronavirus pandemic and its lingering impact on live concerts and classroom education. Even as society struggles to reopen, virtual performances and social media outreach programs have kept performers in the public sphere, since live concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely unsafe.
Tell us about your daily routine while quarantined.
First, I was very sick with the coronavirus, so all I was doing at the time was trying to survive! Once I recovered from the virus, and then the subsequent surgery to repair a rupture from a blood clot, I slowly settled into a routine. I eat breakfast, go for a walk, and then come home to practice for a few hours, then go for another walk, work with my son on homework, research compositions, and work with composers writing music for me.
What projects are you working on?
I’m working on and filming six concerts that each span 300 years of solo-cello repertoire (see video below). It has been so much fun to work with composers for new pieces and dig through archives to find others I have missed over the years. I also have been filming cello/piano recitals with themes to the repertoire choices: Latin, salon jewels, love triangles, Romantic, etcetera. It’s fun creating the perfect meal of music. I also filmed a joint venture with Chimney Rock Winery—they sent me wines to taste and then I chose pieces of music that I felt reflected the characteristics of the different wines. In between each piece, the wine maker and I had a conversation about the wines and why I chose each piece. Wine and classical music share a lot of the same qualities.
Will the quarantine or limitations of the virus change your path?
I start every day with the goal to become a better cellist by the end of the day. The virus has not changed that and since I am not touring constantly, I have even more time to devote to that goal on a daily basis.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in relative isolation?
I really miss collaborating with other artists and I hunger for the energy of a live audience. I really miss the exchange of energy that happens during a performance—there really is nothing that compares!
What are your thoughts about how the pandemic will change the string world in the future?
I wonder how many orchestras and presenting organizations will survive till we can start filling halls. Our profession will obviously be one of the last to resume normalcy. After the great recession of 2008, many corporate sponsors that pulled out of sponsoring classical organizations did not return once the economy recovered. And I wonder if the audience will come back, now that they have gotten used to hearing music in the privacy of their homes.
How are you staying connected with your audience and/or students during the quarantine? Tell us about virtual sessions you’ve participated in.
I started a Patreon streaming site, Saracello & Co., to stream concerts and conversations with other artists. I did some research on different streaming sites and it seemed that Patreon was set up to develop an audience and a steady stream of income. And I’ve been teaching via Zoom and Facetime.
How have you selected your internet programming?
I’ve filmed a couple programs of solo cello repertoire and a couple of programs with pianist Erika Nickrenz, which really underscored how alone I had felt playing solo cello works all day for months.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
To remind your audience of the importance of beauty during this time and of your artistry.
What is the response like?
Pretty good and building each month, but still not replacing all the income I am losing without any touring. So far, far fewer people who buy my albums are motivated to join my Patreon site. I think people got used to getting concerts free on YouTube and are loath to ante up to support their favorite musicians. Also, our audience is older and not as tech savvy, so they’re possibly a little suspicious about the internet.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
It feels a little like an intellectual exercise at times. The audience has always had such an impact on my live performances. It is neither a recording session or a live concert.
Is this something you’ll continue even as venues reopen?
Possibly for certain projects.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Figure out how to reach your specific fan base through social media to let them know what you are doing.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen slowly?
Hopefully start performing live again.
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
Find the beauty and joy in each day. We will meet again!