When you discover the gifted Juilliard grads behind the cello, the violin and the piano are three beautiful women dressed in white, red and yellow dresses with sparkling high heels, you have chanced upon an unusual evening of music. And when these three women turn out to be sisters you know you are also in the presence of an unusual gene pool. And when you hear their work – legitimately classical, but wait it’s jazz, and is that blue grass I hear? – delivered with precision, power and nuance, you realize at the end of the evening these three ladies have successfully transcended genre and launched a surprise attack on your sense of music.
The Ahn Trio, as pleasing to look at as they are to hear, are not only vanward and hip musicians, but attract notable composers the likes of Pat Metheny and Kenji Bunch (New York Times “composer to watch”) to write original pieces for them.
The Community Arts Program 2012 Summer Concert Series hosted Maria (cello), Lucia (piano) and Angella (violin) Ahn at the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, serving up a variety of chamber music remarkable in scope and striving mightily to dissolve the barriers between musical forms.
Born in Seoul, Korea, The Ahn sisters moved to New York City in 1981 where they began their training at the Juilliard School. The trio has been touring for over ten years and has six albums to their credit. Their diverse repertoire ranges from Dvořák and Shostakovich to Ástor Piazzolla and Maurice Jarr to arrangements of songs from David Bowie and The Doors.
And if their boundary pushing, skill and fashion sense wasn’t enough, they all appear to be genuine people with a gracious air and sense of humor. After intermission they announced that they were talking backstage and decided that they liked us so much that they wanted us to come with them to Germany and Chile, their next two concert destinations.
In the hands of the Ahn Trio, chamber music is a team sport. Beyond practice, beyond rehearsal, there is a remarkable communication abundant in their work. When the team takes the field, the grueling hours of practice give way to the heightened energy of the moment, the players connecting and reveling in the output of their well oiled machinery. This was evident throughout the evening, the ladies constantly looking at each other, Maria from her cello challenging Angella’s violin and Lucia urging them on from the piano, all delighting in the vitality of the music.
In order to reach particular effect, their game plan included innovation. To achieve the arid quality in the final movement of Nelson Ayres’s “Paisagens Brasileiras Suite” (Brazilian Landscape) for Piano Trio, a book of Yellow Pages placed on the piano strings gave Lucia’s instrument a thirsty sound while Maria playing col legno battuto (Italian for "hit with the wood"), popping the strings of her cello with the wood of her bow, brought a desired unforgiving result. With a stuffed towel between the metal frame and the piano strings, Lucia attained a open-backed banjo-like sound to compliment Angella’s fiddle in Bunch’s “Backstep” from “Danceband.”
“Paisagens Brasileiras” painted three vistas: riding in a canoe down a river without oars, a vast mountain range, and a dry landscape. The piano sprinted as we moved along the river, the cello picking up a melody seasoned with the plucked strings of the violin. Fading into the second movement, a pretty glide emerged as a shared phrase between the violin and piano diverging with the dissonant and parched driving rhythm of the third.
The communication was so striking between the sisters during the performance of Andre Mahnari’s popular “Insensatez” ('How Insensitive') that one wonders if the girls were ever ‘normal’ sisters. (Afterward, Lucia assured me that they did fight as kids.)
Kenji Bunch writes quite a bit for the Ahn sisters, his compositions featured on three of their six albums. “Concrete Stream,” contrasting nature with urban life, gave the trio an opening to flex their dynamic range, echoing and playing off each other, the singing violin morphing into a dissonant sprint with all three voices mutating into a pleasant melody, a calming reflective solo piano then taking the lead, the voices finally evaporating sublimely. The graveyard shift inspired Bunch’s six movement “Swing Shift,” depicting that electrifying time between dusk and dawn in New York City, “dedicated to anyone whose business stays open all night.” The last two movements begin with “Magic Hour,” a lovely ¾ time melody with all three voices sharing in the joy, stirring into “Grooveboxes,” the music taking us into a smoke filled club, the instruments colliding in every direction on a steady beat.
Bunch happened upon a fortunate spelling blunder while trying to write Dies Irae, the Latin term for "Day of Wrath" used in the Requiem Mass. He wrote instead "Dies Irie" which in Jamaican Patois means being at certain peace with the universe. In this clever piece, the violin speaks and the cello answers and a sweet conversation ensues. “Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac” (the insomniac is their mother) features the piano rendering a late night melody, the violin whispering long high notes, those notes transcending into a rich plaintive phrase.
Pat Metheny was impressed with the trio’s “willingness to play new music at such a high level” after hearing “Yu Ryung” for the first time, a composition he wrote for them set in Seoul where Metheny enjoys playing. It opens with a yearning cello, the violin entering the space as if to console or understand her, the piano coming to lift the mood of the string voices, all three voices moving confidently through the streets, the cello ending up where it began, the piano letting her know everything was alright.
Just before the encore, Ástor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” rendered with genuine passion, the violin leaping so smoothly, leaving the audience breathless, David Balakrishnan turned in an ultra cool piece, “Skylife,” boasting a slinky quasi-jazz theme, spotlighting the violin with the cello tapping out a beat with her ample bow.
The Ahn sisters appreciated the church hall, appreciated the lighting designer, appreciated the audience, and we appreciated them and the truly unique product they bring to the marketplace of music.