Question and Answer: John Sant’Ambrogio
July 15, 2007
More than 6,000 concerts and 50 years as a professional cellist haven’t slowed John Sant’Ambrogio. He recently founded Arts for the Soul, an arts camp for adults, and is a member of the Generations Trio. He jumps on his bike daily to explore Routt County’s back roads and forgotten valleys. And he keeps an ever-mindful eye (and ear) on the arts scene both here at home and across the globe. Twenty years after founding Strings in the Mountains, the 75-year-old Steamboat Springs resident sat down with At Home to discuss music, Steamboat and the future of the arts in the Yampa Valley.
At Home: You retired in 2005 after 37 years as principal cellist for the St. Louis Symphony, not to mention the 15-plus years of professional experience before that. But you’re hardly retired, are you?
John Sant’Ambrogio: There’s more time to do things in spite of the fact that I’m working harder. Before, when you’re the first cellist of a major symphony, you have to be there at a certain time. What I do now, is when someone calls me or something comes up, I just drop everything for that moment and go and do it. And also, now I’m getting a chance to play another literature of the cello, which is solo literature. We’re doing even more things than I’ve done before, and somehow I manage to get it all done in a day. But when 4 or 5 o’clock comes around, I get on my bike and just go.
AH: When you look back on your career, what stands out as your proudest accomplishment?
JSA: (Laughs) What gives me the greatest joy, and this sounds strange, is my kids. Two of my three children are professional musicians, and frankly I’m learning from them now. So I guess I’m proud that I taught them, but in all honesty, it was kind of a family tradition. My mom and my dad taught me, and that influence went down to my kids, and it also influenced a lot of other people. It helped me start festivals – I’ve started two festivals, Strings in the Mountains and a camp called Red Fox. So it’s hard to feel I’ve done much alone. It’s always been with someone else helping. With Strings in the Mountains, if Betse and John Grassby had not donated their lovely athletic club – that’s where we put the first concerts on – if they hadn’t done that, Strings in the Mountains probably would never have been started. Plus, Strings in the Mountains wouldn’t have started without my family and friends, who came and played for nothing. That was a gift for Steamboat.
For me, it just happened. So many things in my life have just happened. I don’t know if it was because I did something special. I’ve been just so blessed. I’ve worked with the greatest musicians in the world, the greatest directors, the greatest soloists.
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AH: Describe your role as a teacher of the arts.
JSA: Teaching is very important. But empowering people is the most important. That gives them that joy. I think there are two things that we need to teach more in this country, in our schools. One is history. The other is the arts. I’ve found that the kids here … the kids who are involved in music aren’t doing drugs or alcohol. They’re too busy doing other stuff. Sports are great. I love sports, but it ain’t the same as the arts. Don’t stop sports, but add the arts.
AH: What do you see when you look at the arts scene in Steamboat Springs today. Where is it heading?
JSA: When I first came, I think there was one flutist in the whole town. Now the place is swarming with musicians and artists. I think also what’s happening is that, from the art perspective, people are beginning to realize that Steamboat is a jewel in the middle of some of the most beautiful Western countryside and environment that you can imagine. Even with all the fears of too much development, there is so much that’s being preserved. The ranches are still out there. And if you go a little bit farther out there, you’ll still see things that boggle your mind – log cabins out in the fields.
This is still the West. I think the art that’s coming out of Steamboat is so influenced by this countryside, by this area. So many of the artists here have been attracted to something special in this area, and that quality comes out in their art. There’s a special feeling about it. I’d like to see us keep going. I really think that mental stimulation as well as physical movement keeps us young, keeps us alive and joyful.
AH: You founded Strings in the Mountains. This year it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Did you imagine it would be so successful?
JSA: Betse Grassby and Kay Clagett are phenomenal. I knew they had the perseverance. When you have a great product, it will sell. I am very grateful that it’s still going on, and I’m very grateful to those two. And I always imagined it would be successful. It was a success from the beginning because the locals made it a success.
AH: What first brought you to Steamboat Springs?
JSA: I was doing Strings in the Mountains in Wyoming, and one day a man from Steamboat came to me and said I should come for a visit. So I came and skied here, and I wasn’t impressed at first because I came during the mud season. But on my last day, I walked up Storm Meadows Drive and saw the condos and townhomes and thought this would be perfect for a music camp. So it was that one conversation with one man that brought me to Steamboat. If I hadn’t done that, would I have ever come?
AH: You recently started Arts for the Soul, an arts camp in Steamboat for adults. Why do it?
JSA: My desire is just to give adults a chance to search and see what their greater gifts are, and revel in it. It is fun to create something artistically, whether it’s music, photography or writing an essay.
When you reach 50 today, it’s like being a teenager again. You still have 30 years left, and there are so many wonderful things you can do and try. I just feel so strongly about mental stimulation, purpose and community. I love this countryside, and I love listening to a great piece of music, but I love enjoying them with someone else. Arts for the Soul is pushing those three things – sense of purpose, sense of community and mental stimulation.
AH: Fast forward 10 years. What are you doing?
JSA: I hope I’m still biking. I hope I’m still playing with the Generations Trio. I want to produce a whole lot of drama concerts. And I hope Arts for the Soul is huge.