Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 27
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
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Trio of Sister Musicians Mesmerizes Audience; Plays Classical and Popular Styles in Concert

Nancy Plum

There was a time when classical music was in one corner and popular music in another, and audiences went to either one type of concert or the other. Somewhere along the way, classically-trained performers began delving into the increasingly varied realms of pop, jazz, bluegrass, and world music. One of the best representative of this crossover trend came to Richardson auditorium last Thursday night as the Ahn Trio, an ensemble of sisters who not only brought exceptional playing to the stage but also showed the nuances of a close-knit musical family.

The Ahn Trio is comprised of two twins and their younger sister who have clearly been immersed in high quality music from an early age. Cellist Maria Ahn, her twin, pianist Lucia, and their younger sister, violinist Angella, have used their Juilliard training to make a major commitment to contemporary music, commissioning new works and gaining enough attention to have works written for them. The Ahns brought a unique brand of musical magic to Richardson last Thursday night as the opening concert of the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concert Series, electrifying the packed house at the University.

The Ahn Trio began their concert with a work by the only truly classical composer on the program — Leonard Bernstein — who did his own share of exploring the popular realm. Bernstein composed his Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano when he was nineteen and a student at Harvard. Never published in his lifetime, the three-movement work contains passages which later surfaced in Bernstein’s more well-known score to On the Town.

The next concert in the Summer Chamber Concert Series will be Wednesday, July 14, when the Carducci Quartet comes to Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are available on the day of the performance; for information call (609) 258-5000.

Maria Ahn began the piece on the cello, joined by sister Angella on the violin in a clean duet in which the players moved dynamically in tandem. Lucia joined the trio with a languid piano line, demonstrating in the subsequent allegro that she possesses a great deal of power at the keyboard. Chamber players working closely together over a long period of time develop a sixth sense as an ensemble, but three sisters (two of whom are twins) have a connection that transcends the concert stage. The Ahn sisters demonstrated in the Bernstein Trio their ability to be always in synch, communicating continuously, even if only peripherally. The hoedown style of the second movement of the Bernstein piece was marked by very fast and exacting pizzicato, and the dissonant third movement, largo, featured a smooth cello line by Maria.

The Ahn sisters paired the Bernstein work with a five-movement dance suite by Kenji Bunch, a young composer, fiddler, and bluegrass artist whom the sisters had known at Juilliard and whom they felt had a similar spirit and humor to Bernstein. Bunch’s Danceband was comprised of five dances from different periods and styles which explored all the possibilities of the cello, violin, and piano. Most interesting in this suite were “Sarabande,” requiring piano strings to be strummed with a guitar pick, and “Backstop,” in which Lucia played a piano prepared with a towel to simulate an open-back banjo. “Sarabande” was very 18th century in style, with a Couperin-like ornamented melody in the piano and an appealing sensitivity. Well-executed double stops on the violin in “Backstop” replicated fiddling, with Angella adding extensive portamento between notes against a muted piano effect.

The strength of the Ahn sisters’ success was well-demonstrated as the musicians played each successive repetition faster and faster as the dance ended in a musical blur.

The Ahn Trio constructed a concert second half of crossover works from composers they either knew or who wrote works specifically for them. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny composed Yu Ryung as part of a potentially larger work, with long lines for the violin and piano and strict pizzicato from the players when necessary. Each player appeared in her own world, yet clearly unified in the ensemble. All the works on the second half contained elements of popular music, with various degrees of extreme technical difficulty well handled by the Ahns.

For audience members looking for a strictly classical chamber concert, this may not have been the perfect cup of tea, but for those looking to hear the cutting edge of classical performance — what boundaries young musicians are pushing with their superb training — the Ahn Trio performance was a sight to behold and hear. In the tradition of the DePue Brothers Band (who played with the Philadelphia Orchestra before launching careers in hi-tech bluegrass), the Ahn Trio has taken their performance training one step further to create something entirely new.

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