Music for the ears and the eyes

Thursday, January 25, 2001 at 1:00am

Eroica Trio plays chamber music � a genre that has been dominated for centuries by old, stodgy white men in black tuxedos. But these three women dress like supermodels and are changing the face of the classical music world concerto by concerto. And they are coming to Vanderbilt�s Langford Auditorium this Friday as part of the university�s Great Performances Series.

With accolades from The New York Times to The San Francisco Examiner, the Grammy-nominated Eroica Trio is one of the first all-female chamber music ensembles to reach the upper echelons of their field. Eroica, which translates from the Italian to mean �heroic,� aptly describes the work and dedication of pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Adela Pe�a and cellist Sara Sant�Ambrogio.

�When we first started out, there was some resistance by the presenters to have us on their series because we were three girls basically,� Nickrenz said in a recent phone interview. More to the point, they were three young and very attractive girls and were dismissed as such by many at first regardless of their musical pedigree � all three came from professional musical families � or their degrees from the prestigious Juliard School of Music. �They couldn�t quite believe that we had the stuff to pull it off on stage. Before we won competitions and had international success, we really had to convince them to give us a chance.�

Even though their beauty may have been a source for stereotyping by promoters in the beginning, their image has led to broader commercial exposure that may not have come had they simply been outstanding musicians. The ladies have been featured in elegant, stylish gowns in Elle, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Detour, Marie Claire, Bon Appetit, Time Out New York and several music-oriented magazines and journals. And while the visual persona of the trio is cultivated, it is hardly contrived.

�We look at our photos and interviews as true to who we are as young women,� Nickrenz said. �If we didn�t dress like that, we would be going against who we are as people.�

The beginnings of the group date back to their childhood when Nickrenz and Pe�a began performing together. Soon after, Sant�Ambrogio began studying with the same instructors as the other two. Their friendship, which has withstood arduous tours crammed together in compact cars with instruments of substantial size, was forged by their shared musical fervor.

�Part of the reason we chose each other as artists way back when we were prepubescent was how passionately we feel about the music,� Nickrenz explained. That passion continues. �We really go for every note with all the intensity we can possibly feel. We really feel like a similar temperament that way. We grew up and influenced each other personally and professionally. I think all those things contribute to how we are as performers as well.�

The choice of music the trio chooses is a testament not only to their bravado but to their prowess as well. �We choose our repertoire by reviewing the best work of the last 300 years,� Nickrenz said. �We do that by reading through music we [have] never played and work that has been sent to us by composers that are brand new.�

Eroica Trio also commissions master works and arrangements that suit their flamboyant nature. �For instance, on this program in Nashville, we�re playing one of the most famous pieces ever written by Bach, which is the �Chacolne,�� said Nickrenz. �It�s never been played by a piano trio. We wanted to play it, so we had it arranged for us. We have a lot of revolutionary ideas about programming, and we�re always inspiring each other to come up with ideas.�

Compositions from their third EMI Classics CD Pasi�n will also be featured on the program for the Langford Auditorium show. �It�s a very exciting program [at Vanderbilt], actually, and quite unusual,� Nickrenz continued. �We�re starting with the Bach and then playing a couple of tangos by Astor Piazzolla. � They�re very sensual and exciting dances.�

Tchaikovsky is another featured composer in the program. �It�s really an epic piece and quite long, an hour long, and it shows off all the virtuosity the instruments are capable of,� Nickrenz said. �And the melodies are to die for. It�s incredibly romantic and powerful. You�re going to get a big range from Baroque to Russian Romanticism. And then you have a taste of Latin tango.�

The performance style of the Eroica Trio is just as stunning as the natural beauty of the women themselves, who should possess a little added glow as two of the women are now pregnant. Unabashed rock fans, they emote on stage with theatrical flair. �The most important thing is to have focus,� Nickrenz explained. �You really lose sight of everything else in your life, and all you can think about is the music because you�re really inside the music. We�re very much honing into what the other is doing. We read each other�s minds almost. If Sara raises her right eyebrow, I know something really interesting is going to happen.�

Nickrenz also feeds off Pe�a claiming, �It�s great to read her body language. � I can really tell what she�s going to do with the music.� She added that Pe�a moves around with the music so much that she �almost needs a seatbelt on stage.�

But the fact is, there�s no holding back for these three. And their careers as world-class and world-famous musicians are truly just beginning.

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