The Ahn Trio blows a refreshing breeze into the frequently stuffy halls of chamber music. Reaching beyond the standard piano-trio literature, the group has commissioned works from a wide variety of composers, including Michael Nyman, Maurice Jarre, Pat Metheny, Paul Schoenfield, Mark O'Connor, Kenji Bunch, Nikolai Kapustin and Paul Chihara. Born in Seoul, South Korea and educated at the Juilliard School in New York City, the members of the Ahn Trio are sisters: identical twins Maria, the cellist, and Lucia, the pianist, are joined by their older sister (by barely two years) Angela, who is a violinist. Presented by TITAS, the trio’s upcoming concert is on Tuesday evening (April 16) at the Winspear Opera House.
Here is what Angela recalls about the trio’s beginning.
"I don’t remember the story," said Angela in a recent interview, “but mom said that back in Korea Lucia would crawl up to the piano in preschool. She started to beg for one. Of course, the three of us are so close in ages that we did everything together. All of a sudden, Lucia was doing something special all by herself. Maria and I said ‘Hey, about us?” We wanted to do something special too, but certainly not what Lucia did, so we chose these instruments. “
Both the violin and the cello they play were made by Samuel Zygmuntowicz, one of the world’s greatest luthiers (maker of string instruments). In their 2008 recording of Bach fugues, the highly distinguished Emerson String Quartet all played Zygmuntowicz instruments.
“The most remarkable things about Sam’s instruments are that they sound great immediately but they change all the time as they age,” Angela said. “I commissioned my violin from him many, many years ago. I gave him some real specifics. But Sam handed me several different instruments to try. Then I started to think about tone, varnish, sound. The result is The Perfect Angela Ahn Violin,” she said, as if making a pronouncement (followed by a laugh to show she was purposely sounding grand).
They continue to explore new repertoire and are interested in the music of their generation. As a result, they play everything from arrangements of music off the AM radio to new music that they commissioned.
“In truth, it isn’t like we decided one day to not play traditional music,” said Angela. “First we issued a couple of records with the traditional piano trio repertoire—and it is wonderful. But right from our time at Juilliard we were meeting composers all the time. Even back then we started working with composers.”
Now, entire programs of wide-ranging music are written specifically for them or contain arrangements designed for the sisters. "You also get spoiled working with living composers and always having them around for discussions and back and forth,” said Angela. ”We can never talk with Beethoven.”
As a fierce advocate for living composers, this writer was thrilled to hear the passion in her voice when she talked about new music. So few groups today have this as part of their mission. But the sisters also reach out to non-traditional, non-classical music composers like Mark O’Connor. He raised bluegrass, jazz and country fiddling to the concert level. “We play his triple concerto all the time,” Angela said.
She added that things have changed with many presenting organizations as well. “I remember playing venues 20 years ago and management asking us to play Beethoven, but now that doesn’t happen. They say ‘play what you want.’”
She summed it up this way.
“We have been extremely fortunate to know these musical giants and work with them. A composer hands the piece off to us, and it is a great obligation to that composer to be honest and convey their music through our prism.”
Amen to that.