Ready…Ahn One and Ahn Two and Ahn Three
Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2007, Lynne Heffiey
Five premiere works and one of the most glamorous and hip sister acts in classical music — the gifted Ahn Trio — define this year’s Laguna Beach Music Festival.
Running today through Friday at the Laguna Beach Artists’ Theatre and other venues, the eclectic festival features classical music with Latin, jazz and impressionistic flavors in a three-concert lineup of new works written by composers Femando Otero, David Benoit, Paul Chihara and Nguyan Le for the Korean sisters (pianist Lucia and cellist Maria, who are twins, and violinist Angella).
“I have to say this is a festival of many firsts,” said Angella Ahn, speaking by phone from New York, the trio’s home base. “We’ve never had a composer write a piece for us and then name each movement after us,” she said, referring to Chihara’s “Orchids,” with each movement titled for a different sister.
“We’ve also never played at a festival where we’re doing five premieres. So it’s pretty exciting and a huge project.”
Classical music from a contemporary, multicultural viewpoint is par for the course for the thirty something Ahns, whose latest EMI Classics CD is called “Groovebox.” Chihara, a noted concert and film composer, said he paid tribute to the Ahns’ gifts as musicians and to Hollywood fill music with his three themes in “Orchids;” a melody by Hugo Friedhofer from the post-World War II classic film “The Best Years of Our Lives;” the tragic Korean folk ballad “Arirang,” the first song to be used in a Korean film; and Chihara’s own theme from the TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar,” about life in the Japanese American relocation camps of World War II. “Given whom I’m writing it for,” Chihara said, “the mood isn’t tragic but seductive, with moments of fleeting sadness.” In particular, “Angella,” the passionate second movement tango, “shows off something of the flamboyance and flair that these remarkably talented young ladies bring to their music-making.”
For their part, the Juilliard-educated Ahns, on People magazine’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2003, are as passionate about shaking off classical musics elitist image as they are about the music itself. “It’s not just us,” Ahn said. “I feel like it’s sort of what’s happening in our time. A lot of barriers are becoming less and less defined. You see it in music, in the arts, in literature, in food. I think it’s just inevitable.”
The Ahn Trio will also play works by Piazzola, Leonard Bernstein, Chick Correa, Kenji Bunch and Maurice Jarre, among others, in the festival concerts. Workshops, talks, a symposium, a master class and other related events are also on tap.
Trio’s Inventive Sister Act
The Washington Post, February 9, 1998, Joseph McLellan
The family that plays together: Cellist Maria, violinist Angella and pianist Lucia deftly balance unanimity with individuality. When Tchaikovsky’s seldom heard Trio in A Minor, 0p. 50, is the best-known work in a concert, you know you are in for some imaginative programming. That was the case with the Ahn Trio on Friday night in the Barns of Wolf Trap.
The three Sisters born in Korea, were educated at the Juilliard School and are now launched on a promising international career with Angella playing violin, Maria on cello and Lucia on piano.
In a program that opened with Astor Piazzo!la’s nostalgic, rhythmically sinuous “Invierno Porteno: Tango” and continued with a very early and almost completely forgotten “ Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano” by Leonard Bernstein, the trio’s playing was superbly coordinated; sisters obviously communicate on a special wavelength. They also communicated charmingly with the audience in a question-and-answer period.
The music was played as imaginatively as it was chosen. Each sister gave the phrasing her own touch in the many passages of imitation or dialogue, where they passed a motif back and forth. Their technique was impressive, and they balanced unanimity and individuality in a spirit that is at the heart of chamber music.
Bernstein’s trio, composed when he was 18 and still a student at Harvard, was later dismissed by him as immature, and in fact it gives little clue to the way this conductor, pianist, composer and educator would develop in later years. But it does show an extremely talented young musician, familiar with the classics of chamber music. knowledgeable about the characteristics of the three instruments and how to make piano and strings work smoothly together. He also showed some of the qualities that would be notable throughout his life: a taste for contrasts, a sense of humor and a fine grasp of musical forms. This trio deserves to be heard more often, and the Ahn sisters deserve credit not only for playing it but for playing it well.
Ahn Trio Gives Chamber Music a New Sound
The Seattle Times, February 5, 2007, Diane Wright
Want to know what a tennis ball sounds like on piano strings? Doom. Pianist Lucia Ahn’s ball-on-the-piano-strings noise was the apocalyptic thunder in the Doors’ 1971 song “Riders on the Storm.” And with every soft bounce, the classically trained musicians of the Ahn Trio further demonstrated how they are reinventing chamber music.
Each sister brings a “must-play” to the program. “That was Lucia’s,” said little-sister Angella. Born in Seoul and raised in America, the Ahn sisters perform plenty of original music, commissioning work from composers all over the world. But they also transcribe into piano-trio literature everything from The Doors to “Orange Blossom Special.”
The Saturday-night performance at the Edmonds Center for the Arts followed two hours of master classes at the local high school. The rebuilt Edmonds theater, opened a month ago, once again proved its versatility, turning into a small-concert venue.
Billowy white fabric extended into the fly space and made a cloudlike canopy for these exquisite musicians in their silken dresses: pianist Lucia and cellist Maria who are twins — and violinist Angella, the youngest sister by two years. Angella did the talking for this spirited team.
“We wrote [Nikolai Kapustin] and asked him for a four-movement trio,” she said from the stage, giving us a hint to listen for the jazzy bass lines of the cello and bluesy piano sounds in Kapustin’s “Divertissement for Piano Trio, Opus 126.”
Catch a freeze-frame moment during this piece and here’s what you’d see: cellist Maria, head to one side in deep focus; Angella poised at the edge of her chair, her bowing arm a sinewy right angle; and Lucia attacking the keyboard with hair dancing as she played a set of urgent piano runs crisply.
This lively and bright piece had sharp keyboard attacks reminiscent of Gershwin, yet there were some Stéphane Grappelli-like swoony, soaring harmonies on the violin, and some deep, percussive plucking of the cello. At times slow and lyrical, at others agitated and raffish, and it showed the versatility of these sisters embracing the work of their “Ahn-plugged composers,” as they title their program.
With their multicultural assortment of composers and a huge talent, these women have a modernist, fusion sensibility that is perfect for our age. Their take on chamber music is intimate, yet grand¬¬–innovative, yet classic. They seem to be having fun with their commissions, which get more and more adventurous as they add to the chamber repertoire.
To the listener, it’s a revolution.
They played a lighthearted Chick Corea piece in waltz time that changes the way you’ll hear the jazz legend; Kenji Bunch’s “Dies Irie” was another standout. Their longtime friend from Juilliard was as minimalist and contemplative as the Russian’s work was richly textured and outsized.
David Balakrishnan’s “Tremors” was inspired by earthquakes, with strange bowing effects and deep cello tones. A longtime bluegrass fan, Angella soared with her sisters in the evening’s encore, the fusillade of notes that is “Orange Blossom Special.” That tribute to the famous Eastern Seaboard train is, thanks to such artists as Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash, the best-known fiddle tune in the world.
During the standing ovation, one yell from the audience said it all: “Ahn-believable!”
Sister Act Livens Up Chamber Music
The Grand Rapids Press, January 27, 2007, Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk
From time to time, I fret about the future of chamber music. Symphony orchestras are holding their own and opera has enjoyed growing audiences for years now, but chamber music has been the unloved stepchild for many years.
Ticket-buying audiences seem to have as much interest in an evening of Haydn string quartets as they do in wearing breeches, silk stockings and hoop skirts to the programs.
Thankfully, we have the Ahn Trio–three attractive, charming young women who happen to be highly accomplished musicians with a fresh approach to chamber music.
Four years ago, the Ahn Trio packed Hope College’s Dimnent Chapel. On Friday, the sister act sold out its return engagement, some 1,000 seats in all for the Great Performance Series concert in Holland. Angella, Maria and Lucia Ahn, fresh from The Juilliard School, broke into the business a decade ago playing standard repertoire for violin, cello and piano. But success breeds independence, and the Ahn Trio has reached the point where they can play pretty much whatever they want and still sell tickets. What the Korean-born, New York-bred musicians want to play is new music, though new music on their own terms.
Friday’s program dabbled in jazz, blues, bluegrass and progressive rock, not to mention lullabies unabashedly romantic with overtones of New Age aesthetic. None of it was insipid schlock, but neither was it mind-numbing, avant-garde meanderings. They played pieces by at least six different composers and arrangers–all living, ranging in age this year from 32 to 70. But the constant in their program was music that generally was highly rhythmic and rich in melodies with generous servings of flatted blues notes and upper harmonics.
The biggest piece of the night was the opener, a 20-minute “Divertissement for Piano Trio” by Nikolai Kapustin, a Russian composer. The jazzy, four-movement piece had its moments of thoroughly Russian material, but also a syncopated rhythmic vitality that left you wondering what George Gershwin might have written if he also had lived into old age.
“Mr. Twitty’s Chair,” a funky, 18-bar blues by Katrina Wreede, had an intense dialogue going on between the three musicians and featured cellist Maria Ahn as the curmudgeonly Mr. Twitty. Violinist Angella Ahn is a sometime fiddler, and she led the trio in a version of the “Orange Blossom Special” as an encore. It could have been meat-and-potatoes, but their arrangement was imaginative and substantial.
The piece that may have been the most talked about was a transcription of “Riders on the Storm,” the hit song for The Doors. It might seem a little wacky, but working with familiar folk tunes or popular melodies of the day is old hat for classical music composers. Michal Rataj’s arrangement, featuring Lucia Ahn banging a tennis ball inside the grand piano to simulate a storm, was nicely crafted — lean in the piano accompaniment, full of psychedelic licks in the strings. David Balakrishnan’s “Skylife,” which had a bit of a rock guitar kind of appeal, gave the Seoul sisters the chance to show some soul themselves with the tune originally recorded by Turtle Island String Quartet. The Ahn Trio departed several times from their printed program, playing two lullabies in a row in the first half, which probably was one too many. Kenji Bunch’s “Dies Irie,” a pun that can be translated as “Day of Happiness,” had a dreamy, pop-flavored serenity that the Ahns performed with subtle and elusive interplay. This was a performance that had the audience buzzing by intermission, suggesting the Ahn Trio is a chamber music ensemble for the 21st century.
Ahn Trio: The New Classical Revolution
Newsday, New York, May 7, 2003, Stacey Kors
When the Kronos Quartet first burst onto the music scene in the 1980s, clad in black leather and playing a mean arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” it seemed that a revolution in classical music had begun. But despite Kronos’ overwhelming popularity — or perhaps because of it — other ensembles weren’t quick to follow suit.
Now the Ahn Trio takes up the crossover cause, hoping to follow in the footsteps of its goundbreaking predecessors. Young, hip and attractive, with CDs titled “Ahn-plugged’ and “Groovebox,” Korean-born sisters Augella, Lucia and Maria are bringing a refreshing bit of edginess back to the classical stage — at a time when the art form desperately needs to attract new audiences.
But while style often can substitute for substance in pop music, musicianship remains a key component in the classical world. In a difficult and diverse program, the Ahn Trio proved that beneath the club-kid clothes are talented, Juilliard-trained artists who know how to make thoughtful musical choices.
Like Kronos, this violin-cello-piano trio enjoys working with living composers, and has made commissions the mainstay of its repertoire. Sunday’s program included several of these works — such as Michael Nyman’s romantic “Yellow Beach” and Israeli composer Ron Yedidia’s tender “Lullabye”‘ — with a couple of snappy Astor Piazzolla tangos and an imaginative arrangement of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” thrown in for good measure. All featured tight, solid playing, with strong communication among the players.
The real standout, however, was 29-year-old composer Kenji Bunch’s “Swing Shift: Music for Evening Hours,” a six-movement work written for the trio and played without pause. An homage to New York’s nightlife, the piece is.a modern musical take on artist Edward Hopper’s lonely look at the sleepless city. With movements named “Night Flight,” “Club Crawl” and “Groovebox,” this percussive, jazzy work captured the essence of the trio and its artistic approach — a young group working with young composers, trying to create intelligent and innovative classical music that’s accessible to the MTV generation. The sisters gave an energetic and evocative performance of this musically complex piece, comfortably keeping pace with it’s sudden shifts in style and tempo.
Trio’s Eclectic Selections Show Edge and Intensity
The Indianapolis Star, Thursday, April 24, 2003, Whitney Smith
From the serenity of a snowy Swiss valley to the pulse of New York jazz clubs at night, atmospheric music filled the air for the Ahn Trio’s Indianapolis’ debut.
An all-in-the-family ensemble of early-30ish Korean-American sisters who play the violin, cello and piano, the Ahn Trio brought an emotion-packed program of picturesque music by living composers to Ensemble Music Society’s packed house Wednesday at the Indiana History Center.
Though the Ahn Trio’s current selections don’t seem quite as multi-continental, the edge and intensity of their programming does seem to follow in the footsteps of the Kronos Quartet, a groundbreaking American string quartet that has been commissioning music for more than 25 years.
Over a gentle sparkle of piano notes was layered a vibrato-rich cello melody in “Winter” from “The Engadiner Suite,” a series of Swiss mountain sketches by Maurice Jarre, the French composer of scores to films including “Doctor Zhivago.”
Then came “Swing Shift,” a superb six-part suite of urban miniatures describing New York after dark, from percussive attacks conjuring feelings of angst, to the lonely chime of a clock, to playful jazz chords accompanied by a walking bass–all in the alluring vocabulary of the Ahns’ Juilliard chum, Kenji Bunch.
After intermission, the trio turned to what violinist Angella Ahn described as some of the group’s favorite short pieces. That grouping began with Michael Nyman’s “Yellow Beach,” which alternates between a calm section with piano tremolo to fiercely accented minimalist patterns. This gave way to the hauntingly lyrical cello melody of “Lullaby,” Israeli composer Ronn Yedidia’s memorial to his grandmother.
“Riders On the Storm” was indeed the hit popularized by The Doors, but this transcription by Michal Rataj wove the rock tune in and around storm sounds, including the ominous boom of thunder generated by a tennis ball thudding on piano strings.
The scheduled program, reshuffled and announced from the stage, closed with a serene “Oblivion” and a punchy “Primavera Portena” by Argentine tango adapter Astor Piazzolla. The Ahns opened “Portena” very briskly, lapsing into a series of reprises at jaggedly varied tempos. Those who know the Eroica Trio recording may find it smoother.
For an encore, the Ahns came back with “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.