Ahn Trio brings sister power to new music

Arts / Article

The Ahn Trio, from left: Maria, Angella and Lucia.

It isn’t every arts group that specializes in new music, particularly when it’s a piano trio, a tried-and-true staple of the world of chamber music.

But the Ahn Trio sees things a little differently.

“We started out playing very traditional repertoire, but as we developed relationships with these amazing composers around us, and listened to more and more of living composers’ music, we started to play more music that was written for our group,” said Maria Ahn, the group’s cellist and sister to its other two members.

“We felt very strongly that there were so many other groups out there performing older masterpieces that will live on, no matter what,” she said. “But there were all these brilliant composers that we wanted to play, and we felt that it would be good for them to be heard.”

The trio – the other members are pianist Lucia, who is Maria’s twin, and violinist Angella – appears Thursday night in the summer concert series of the Community Arts Program at the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ. The program features primarily contemporary American music, including six pieces by the violist and composer Kenji Bunch; “Skylife,” by Turtle Island String Quartet founder David Balakrishnan; and “Yu Ryung,” by the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

Also on the bill is a three-part suite (“Brazilian Landscapes”) by the Brazilian jazz pianist Nelson Ayres, and an arrangement of “Insensatez,” the 1963 Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa standard based on the Prelude No. 4 (in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4) of Chopin.

The Ahns were born in Seoul and came to the United States for study at Juilliard. The first couple discs of their six recordings featured music by Ravel, Villa-Lobos, Dvorak, Suk and Shostakovich, but after that they quickly branched out into other realms, including collaborations with dance companies, an appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged,” and a tour and recording in 2009 with the Czech rock band Tata Bojs.

Along the way, the group has had numerous composers write for it, including the late French film composer Maurice Jarre, British composer Michael Nyman and the Ukrainian pianist and composer Nicolai Kapustin. The American crossover violinist and composer Mark O’Connor also has written a triple concerto for the Ahn sisters.

“The three of us are really, really different, and we fight a lot, artistically,” Maria said. “We all have very different tastes. But it’s actually like a positive and a negative, because we’re all so different, we all bring different projects into the group.”

And while they disagree about what to play, when it comes time to program, all three have to be on board.

“We’ve never quite made a rule, but we never play unless all three of us agree. Because if you don’t love what you’re playing, if one of us isn’t convinced, then you’re not going to sound convincing,” she said. “But there are times when one of us really has to push the other two.”

Maria, for instance, is a great fan of Brazilian music and had to lobby hard to have the trio what later became what they whimsically called the “Braziliahn” project. Angella loves bluegrass, which led to the O’Connor piece, and Lucia was the one who wanted to do the Tata Bojs collaboration.

“The tours we did with them were some of our most fun memories,” she said.

The Ahn sisters also are fortunate in being photogenic, so much so that in 2003 they were named three of the 50 Most Beautiful People in People magazine’s annual survey. They have appeared in magazines such as GQ and Vogue, and Maria said she feels good about the way classical music today has come to appreciate the importance of marketing.

“If you see a performer on stage, you hope that the performer has done his or her best to look presentable. You’d rather hear someone who looks attractive than not; that’s pretty vain, but it’s just human nature,” she said.

Still, she said that the media interest in the Ahn Trio is mostly about the music.

“Even the magazine spreads we’ve done, if we were not playing the instruments we play, we would never have been chosen to model,” she said. “It’s really all because of what we do.”

Most of the music the Ahn Trio plays these days was written or arranged for them. The group’s most recent album is Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac, which takes its title from Bunch’s piece by that name, a gentle, soothingly pretty work that will be on Thursday’s concert.

“We choose to play music that we ourselves would want to listen to,” Maria said. “And so for us it’s really important that it’s something that we like a lot … We wouldn’t just play something because as artists, it’s really challenging to play this piece. The whole purpose is to share music with audiences.”

And to share something fresh and interesting.

“We’ve been very, very lucky, but we still have always stuck with our beliefs about how we wanted to approach music, and how we wanted to approach chamber music,” she said. “If you’re doing something else that you think other people might approve of, then you’re not doing anything interesting.”

The Ahn Trio appears at 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets range from $30 to $45, and can be obtained by calling 305-448-7421, ext. 120, or by visting communityartsprogram.org. Here they are at a TED conference last year playing Balakrishnan’s “Skylife” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion.”