The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio talks about the human quality of French music. She performs Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 on an all-French program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend. | November 16, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The award-winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) makes her solo debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) in an all-French program this coming weekend.

sara sant'ambrogio 1

Sant’Ambrogio will solo in Camille Saint-Saëns’ stormy Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, a first-time performance of the work by the MSO under its music director and conductor John DeMain.

The opening piece, Maurice Ravel’s sensuous Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, showcases the classical simplicity and ultimate decadence of the waltz, and the colors of all the instruments in the orchestra.


Finally, the MSO will perform the groundbreaking Symphonie Fantastique by Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (below). It is an unorthodox five-movement work that vividly captures an artist’s tortured infatuation and the haunted hallucinations of an opium trip.


The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio is an internationally-renowned soloist and founding member of the Eroica Trio (below). She launched her international career when she was a winner at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Violoncello Competition in Moscow, Russia. She holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School, and won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Arias and Barcarolles.” She last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2001 as part of the Eroica Trio.


Written in 1872, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 was instantly regarded as a masterpiece by the Paris public. Saint-Saëns rejected the standard concerto form in this work by interlinking the piece’s three movements into one continuous musical expanse, held together by the rich lyrical power of the cello.

The composer found the Cello Concerto No.1 difficult to write, so much so that he vowed never to compose for cello again; Saint-Saëns broke this vow 30 years later with his Cello Concerto No. 2.

One hour before each performance, John DeMain, music director and principal conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will lead a FREE 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

More background on the music can also be found in the Program Notes at

Single Tickets are $16 to $85 each, available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25 percent by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit,

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: Students can receive 20 percent savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20 percent savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts cannot be combined.

Find more information at

Major funding for the November concerts is provided by Barbara Ryder, DeEtte Beilfuss-Eager and Leonard P. Eager, Jr., in memory of Karen “Lovey” Johnson, and Rosemarie Blancke. Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, Sunseed Research, LLC, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

sara sant'ambrogio

Could you briefly bring readers up to date on your career since 2001 when you last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as part of the Eroica Trio and performed the Triple Concerto for piano trio? What are current and future major plans and projects?

Wow, a lot has happened since 2001! I had a son, Sebastian, who just turned 11. I’ve recorded for solo CDs, the complete Bach solo suites, the Chopin collection and “Dreaming,” which has had a number of tracks used in movie soundtracks such as the HBO movie “A Matter of Taste.” I’ve recorded another Eroica Trio CD, “An American Journey,” which was nominated for a Grammy award.

I’ve toured China and all over Asia, and also the Arabian peninsula, which was amazing and mind-blowing. Petra in Jordan was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. It has been a truly amazing 14 years!

There seems to be a revival or rediscovery going on of the works of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Why do you think that is?

Saint-Saens (below) has been grossly underrated in my view. His music has a wonderful mix of gorgeous melodies that speak to the human condition, sparkling virtuous pyrotechnics and a joie de vivre, which is just infectious! What’s not to love!

camille saint-saens younger

You are performing on an all-French program with Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” and Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.” What elements or traits do identify as being typically French in classical music, and does Saint-Saëns fit the mold?

I think there is a lushness to French music that Saint-Saens shares. There is also a very human quality to the best of French music.

What would you like to say about the piece you will be performing in Madison, the Cello Concerto No. 1? What is typical or unusual about it?  What in particular would you like the public to listen to and notice?

Just to have a blast! The Saint-Saens starts with a bang and never lets up till the joyous end! (Note: You can hear it played by the late Russian cellist, conductor and human rights activist Mstislav Rostropovich in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What else would you like to say?

I can’t wait to come back and play in Madison again. I had such a fantastic time playing there last time with my trio that the town loomed so large in my imagination, I had no idea until this interview that it had been 14 years since I was last there.



  1. The French selections of the recent Festival Choir concert at First Unitarian were sung wonderfully. Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine” has been running through my head as I have watched the wrenching scenes from Paris.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — November 17, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

  2. Mikko, you wrote that you are aware of 4 great prodigy composers.

    There were quite a few others than the ones you mentioned (although those are good ones) (and I’m sure others could add names to this list):

    Vincenzo Bellini (began studying music theory at two, the piano at three);

    F. Chopin (began playing the piano at age 7); composed two polonaises at the age of 7, composed and played a march for a grand duke at the age of 8,

    F. Lizst (began playing the piano at 9 and made his first performance at 11);

    S. Prokofiev (composed an opera at age 9);

    Samuel Barber (made his debut at age 7, wrote an opera at age 10);

    Gian Carlo Menotti, composed his first opera at age of 11;

    Henry Purcell; made his debut at the ripe age of 11.

    Vaughan Williams, began taking piano lessons at 5, wrote his first piece of music the same year;

    G. Verdi, paid to pay the organ at the age of 8; wrote his first music at 13;

    Alan Hovhaness, wrote his first piece, a cantata, at the age of 4.

    F. Schubert, first musical lessons at age of 6;

    Edward Elgar, began playing the piano and violin at age 8; made his debut at 15;

    Phillip Glass, studied the flute as a child; attended the U. of Chicago at age 15.

    Earl Wilde, began playing the piano at age 3; was only fourteen when he was hired to play Piano and Celeste in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Otto Klemperer; played piano at the White House at age 15; composed piano transcriptions of Paderewski’s ‘Minuet’ in the style of Ravel and the Strauss Waltz, ‘Voices of Spring’ at the age of 13; was in his 80’s when he recorded an album of his compositions which won a Grammy Award.

    George and Ira Gershwin, both began playing the piano around the age of 10, George began writing songs at the age of 15.

    Moral of the story: you’d better get to work!

    Comment by fflambeau — November 17, 2015 @ 3:05 am

    • Some other child prodigies as composers:

      Robert Schumann, began playing the piano at age 7 and composing at the same age;

      Clara Schumann (considered by many contemporaries to be her husband’s superior as a musician), began playing the piano at an early age and gave a recital at age 8; known primarily as a great pianist, she was also a composer of note: at age fourteen she wrote her piano concerto, with some help from Robert Schumann, and performed it at age sixteen at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with Mendelssohn conducting;

      Niccolò Paganini, began playing the mandolin at age 5, better known as a performer on the violin but also composed several works for that instrument;

      J. Brahms, began playing the piano at the age of 7 and composed works, including a piano sonata, starting when he was 11;

      R. Wagner, began studying the piano at age 7; composed his first musical work, an opera, at the age of 13;

      G. Puccini, was a church organist at the age of 6; at 21, composed his Mass;

      Jean Sibelius, began studying the violin at the age of 10; wrote several compositions by the age of 15;

      Sergei Rachmaninoff (one of my 3 nominees for greatest composer of the 20th century along with J. Sibelius and Alan Hovhaness), began studying the piano at the age of 4; entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 10; compositions by the age of 18 including various songs and the basis for his 1st Piano Concerto.

      Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, began not only studying piano at an early age but building them too! His famous Piano Sonata #1 in F was composed when he was 20 and it was by that “late age” already his 6th work.

      Comment by fflambeau — November 17, 2015 @ 5:25 am

  3. Hi Jake,
    For the sake of historical accuracy…Sara Sant’Ambrogio and Eroica Trio performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2010 in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Concert Series. They provided a recital followed 2 days later by a performance with the UW Chamber Orchestra. Both excellent concerts. They also provided an superb master class in Music Hall. I look forward to hearing Sara with MSO.

    Comment by Ralph — November 16, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    • Hi Ralph,
      Many thanks for this correction or addition.
      I was focused on Sara Sant-Ambrogio’s appearances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as I guess she was too since it is somewhat odd that she didn’t mention the performances at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the UW Chamber Orchestra.
      Perhaps she didn’t mention it because it involved the entire Eroica Trio and not her soloing.
      In any case, setting the record straight is much appreciated.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 16, 2015 @ 9:32 am

  4. After the tragedy that occurred in Paris, perhaps it is fair to say that the timing of this all French program could not have been better.

    Some very nice musical choices on the program.

    I agree fully with this comment by the talented and lovely soloist, Sara Sant’Ambrogio : “Saint-Saens has been grossly underrated in my view.”

    Music critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Saint-Saëns, “It is not generally realized that he was the most remarkable child prodigy in history, and that includes Mozart.” He began playing the piano at age 3 and performing at the age of 5!

    Plus, he wrote superb music for opera, the symphony, vocal music, the keyboard (he was an excellent pianist and organist), and chamber music. In short, he could do it all.

    We need to hear more of his music.

    Comment by foodloversofchiangmai — November 16, 2015 @ 12:43 am

    • There are four great prodigy composers, by my accounting – Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn, and Korngold. I think Mendelssohn’s youthful works are by far the greatest and most enduring of the four; what of Mozart’s music from his teens compares with the Midsummer overture, the a-minor quartet, or the Octet? Personally I have never developed a taste for Saint-Saëns’ music. I’ve never been gripped by a sense of drama in it, or beguiled by its colors, or been obsessed with a melody. (All three of the other prodigies I listed were better melodists, I think.) I’m curious what you hear in him, or what your favorite pieces are – I’ve always been vaguely bored by even very good performances. It just feels detached, I guess, or long-winded, or a little empty.

      Comment by Mikko Utevsky — November 17, 2015 @ 12:13 am

      • Probably my favorite piece by Saint-Saëns is his Sonata No. 1 in D Minor for violin and piano. Very nice melodies developed by the composer especially in the opening Allegro Agitato movement but also in the Adagio which is more contemplative.

        But I am especially fond of this piece’s closing movement which is a moto perpetuo of stunning brilliance; one can see that the composer was a gifted pianist here but it is the interplay between piano and violin that I find mesmerizing for the composer must have also been a very good violin player: this movement contains brilliant, soaring music that is flawlessly interlaced, with each instrument. I believe this movement has been used as “theme” music or for introductions to several classical music shows. My reaction, whenever I hear this played is: how did he do that? Brilliant.

        There are several quality recordings of this but my favorite is on Phillips with Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug.

        As far as color and melody, how can you not know of and admire his “Carnival of the Animals” and especially “The Swan” movement of that? That is stunning, in my opinion. I also like, from the same piece, aquarium, the elephant, the kangaroo (you can almost hear the animal hopping in this one), and the march royal of the lion.

        Another terrific piece is his Dance Macabre, Opus 40. The orchestration here is as brilliant as anyone has ever written. He also displays a nice, deft sense of humor here (and in the Carnival) and humor is difficult to convey in music but he is a master at it.

        I also love his second and fourth piano concertos, his Organ Symphony, and more (he wrote over 300 works and I think it is fair to say that they are all of high quality). I should also mention his opera, “Samson and Dalila” (he wrote others which I would like to hear and are not frequently performed).

        The upcoming soloist in his cello concerto #1 (which is also excellent) said this in the interview above–and I cannot say it better): “His music has a wonderful mix of gorgeous melodies that speak to the human condition, sparkling virtuous pyrotechnics and a joie de vivre, which is just infectious!”

        Exactly right.

        Comment by foodloversofchiangmai — November 17, 2015 @ 2:14 am

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