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String Theory

Generous performances from violinist Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio and pianist Gregory Allen made this an impressive recital

Reviewed by Natalie Zeldin, Fri., April 19, 2013

Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio
Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio

String Theory

First Unitarian Church, 4700 Grover
April 13

The Austin Chamber Music Center's String Theory marked a sort of homecoming for violinist Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio, who currently teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, but was at one time the concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony. She was originally slated to perform with ACMC Artistic Director Michelle Schumann, but when Schumann became pregnant with a due date within days of the concert, Butler School of Music piano professor Gregory Allen was recruited to provide his masterful collaborative spirit for the evening. (By the way, Schumann gave birth to Ivy Elizabeth Orem on April 4.)

The program included three very different sonatas. The first work was Franz Schubert's Duo for Violin and Piano in A Major. When the audience clapped after the first movement, instead of responding with a condescending glare, Sant'Ambrogio graciously remarked, "Well, really, when the audience claps, the musician feels very happy!" This statement prompted a room full of applause, setting an intimate tone for the rest of the concert. The "Scherzo" movement was especially effective – the nuanced returns to the tempo were unexpected and witty. The lyrical "Andantino" provided ample opportunity for melodic beauty, particularly for Allen, whose endless phrases had a vocal quality.

The five-movement Sonata for Violin and Piano by the young Turkish composer Fazil Say capitalizes on a range of extended techniques – from both the violinist and pianist – to create a range of unconventional tonal effects. In the second movement, "Grotesque," the composer instructs the pianist to place a box of coins on the lowest strings in order to generate a rattling sound that emphasizes the jazzy syncopations. The third movement was a fiery and virtuosic barrage of lightning-fast bowings and double-stops, handled easily by Sant'Ambrogio's impressive and dexterous technique. The fourth movement, based on a traditional Turkish poem, featured ghastly violin harmonics and a cadenzalike passage of stopped piano (the strings were dampened with one hand and played with the other to create this sound). The final movement, "Melancholy," struck me as uninteresting on first listen. However, when it was repeated verbatim, it sounded more fresh.

In the first few movements of the final piece, Brahms' Sonata for Violin and Piano, the duo's approach was a bit reserved, but by the last movement, Sant'Ambrogio and Allen really let it rip. I only wish they had started with that wonderful energy. Nonetheless, the richness of both violin and piano sound made it hardly something to complain about. This was all in all a generous performance from the duo and one of the most enjoyable recitals I've heard in recent months.

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