Friday, 5 February 1999
Award-winning Eroica Trio not shy about being lovely to look at
By Ken Keuffel Jr.
OK, I'll admit it. Researching this piece on the Eroica Trio, which performs here Wednesday, leaves me puzzled.
Were it not for the violin and cello, I might have mistaken the accompanying photo for a sexy fashion advertisement - not publicity material for a critically acclaimed piano trio that's performed in many of the world's concert halls.
But this is the '90s. All-female chamber groups aren't all that rare anymore, and this one's not about to downplay what one critic has called its ``glamorous good looks.''
Moreover, the trio has enlisted in a new army of babes (and hunks) out to prove just how hip classical music can be. And even if you don't dig the music entirely, you can always look at the people who are playing it.
At the Eroica's Web site, www.eroicatrio.com, for instance, there's a whole page of pictures, each devoted to different settings, poses and wardrobes. Just a click of your mouse enlarges them into full-screen portraits.
One lighthearted photo emphasizes plenty of leg, while another shows off the three sofa-lounging musicians in stunning evening gowns. Not all of life is a party: Eroica's members also don T-shirts and jeans for a casual outing in hill country.
The Eroica is one of the first classical ensembles to acknowledge its clothing, hair and makeup stylists on a CD's booklet, for a recent EMI recording of Shostakovich and Dvorák trios.
The Eroica has even attracted the attention of fashion magazines such as Elle and Glamour.
``In a chamber-music world dominated by pasty old men, svelte, thirtysomething babes tend to get pooh-poohed,'' Elle wrote. ``But cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio, violinist Adela Peña and pianist Erika Nickrenz . . . are beautiful, talented, and smart - a combination they're working to rock the stodgy stasis of classical music.''
The response of more mainstream critics is more complicated.
While many reviews praise the musicianship of the Eroica - which won the 1991 Naumburg Award, chamber music's highest honor - the language is often qualified.
After raving about a 1997 concert, for instance, Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle lamented the emphasis on looks in the group's marketing campaigns, noting ``how much more they have to offer than most of the recent crop of classical-music cover girls.''
Gwendolyn Freed, writing last year in The Wall Street Journal, concluded that the ``real attraction of this group is its artistry'' - and called their marketing strategy ``a short-sighted one.''
``To be sure, and to be blunt,'' she wrote, ``these women will get crow's feet, their breasts will sag, and their butts will droop long before they run out of musical ideas. If the public stops looking, will it also stop listening?''
For its part, the Eroica seems to take such comments in stride.
``It's pretty silly,'' Nickrenz said. ``We never dwell on our image. We're serious musicians.''
As for possibly losing short-term oglers over time, Nickrenz said, ``We're making fans for life.''
Violinist Peña seemed philosophical.
``If we attract audiences for whatever reason, we're happy,'' she said. ``(But) when people come to hear us, they comment not only on our appearance, they comment on the energy they see. That's equated with youthfulness and beauty.''
It's worth noting, too, that the Eroica is trying to make it in a struggling industry that often relies on different flavors of the month to hold the attention of a declining audience. Think, for instance, of all those child prodigies and competition winners.
Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe's music critic, believes the Eroica is capitalizing on a foundation laid by the Kronos Quartet, a champion of new music.
``What made them was not what they did, but their photographs,'' he said, referring to hipper-than-hip images of serious, pouty-faced musicians who've never forsook Bohemian-intellectual roots.
In any event, the Eroica's players certainly aren't the first classical musicians to create a niche by playing up sex appeal. Think of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, known for playing in strapless gowns, or, for that matter, violinist Lara St. John, whose instrument covered her naked breasts on the cover of a recent Bach CD.
I'll never forget the time, either, when I passed around a brochure photo of Joshua Bell in a bar. Several ladies positively drooled over the violinist. Bell is 31 now, but boyish good looks that were with him when he made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 14 will probably never leave him.
Keith Lockhart is another good case in point.
The 39-year-old Wunderkind became the 20th conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1995, replacing John Williams, a film-score composer old enough to be his father. Lockhart was immediately ``marketed as hot sex symbol,'' said The Boston Globe's Dyer. ``He made an immediate electric connection that hasn't gone away.''
Still, in the end, do good looks make any major difference? Certainly, they can't hurt, but beyond that unoriginal answer, they seem to help classical musicians more in the record store than in the concert hall.
One possible reason: Recordings may sell better than concerts because music fans find them more convenient and less expensive.
The case of the Boston Pops' Lockhart is telling.
You'd think his youth, vigor and one-time eligibility among women (he's since married) would help the Pops build a far younger audience than the middle-age-and-up crowd that's traditionally flocked to Pops concerts at Symphony Hall.
Not a chance.
``I don't notice a dramatic change,'' said Kim Smedvig, spokeswoman at the Boston Symphony, most of whose members make up the Pops. ``If anything, I notice more younger people coming to symphony than to pops (concerts).''
That said, Lockhart's Pops recordings ``have done phenomenally well,'' noted Dorian Simonian, marketing manager for crossover fare at RCA Victor, Lockhart's label. She said that ``hundreds of thousands of recordings'' have been sold to a demographically mixed audience.
``It's a combination of a lot of things,'' said Simonian, asked to explain the Lockhart/Pops recordings' success. ``I definitely think Keith's got an appeal, for whatever reason. He's got charisma and talent.''
The Eroica's CD sales are also quite strong. (Just why is for you to decide, but the CD covers do look great.)
But before you buy one of their two recordings - three more are on the way - check out how they play on Wednesday. By now, you should have more than one reason to go.