A while back I was part of a conversation where someone committed the nearly unpardonable faux pas of referring to a classical concert as a “show.” There was a nearly audible gasp accompanied by visual daggers as if the offender had several gaseous episodes in a crowded elevator. The elitist streak in many of us may even agree with that reaction, but it is without question that Duke Performances presented The Ahn Trio “Show” at Reynolds Auditorium – not that there’s anything wrong with that. The sisters Ahn, violinist Angella, and twins Lucia on piano and cellist Maria, are well into their second decade of recording and performing. They have an immaculate musical pedigree, each having attended The Juilliard School emerging to form a piano trio with the purpose of removing the stodginess and predictability of chamber music concerts. Mission accomplished – but have they swung the pendulum too far?
When you are classical musicians and label your ensemble a “piano trio” it almost becomes a necessity to first prove your mettle with the standard repertoire. The Ahn Trio had done that with their early recordings and concerts, nicely mixing the classics with new compositions (many written for them). However, with their new contract with Sony Classics, at least for this tour, they have completely abandoned their roots for aspirations of pop stardom. Marketing of classical music and performers is becoming increasingly urgent during our economic apocalypse, but regardless of how one feels about this, there are two unchangeable constants that must be preserved: musicianship of the performers and quality of the music.
This concert was basically a performance of the trio’s latest CD, Lullaby for My Favorite Insominiac – a recording that includes many world premieres. The stage was set up so that each of the Ahns had their own microphone. Amplified classical ensembles are certainly nothing new, or to be feared, but these mics were for a much more nefarious use: the heavily scripted, “spontaneous” patter that has long been the norm for local news shows. The listed opening work was canned for a performance of Dance Band, a new work by Kenji Bunch, a Juilliard trained composer long associated with the Ahn Trio. This is a five movement suite that explores the dance – from the baroque Sarabande to disco – no, really! This, along with Bunch’s Dies Irie (correct spelling that indicates in Jamaican dialect the exact opposite of “day of wrath”) was agreeable musical wallpaper and empty calories. A brief lovely, lyrical work called Song on the Land, by Israeli composer Ronn Yedidia was sensitively played by the trio, and they ended the first half with a trio reworking of Turtle Island String Quartet’s Skylife.
The second half opened with what was the most substantial and satisfying work of the evening: Yu Ryung (translates from Korean roughly to “ghost figure”) by celebrated jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. The cello begins with an ostinato figure that increases in complexity and is expanded by the other instruments. It eventually reaches the high energy that Metheny is known for in his playing. The ravishing "Oblivion" by Astor Piazzolla followed by his "Primavera Porteña" helped end the evening on an auspicious note.
The Ahn trio is unquestionably a highly polished, musically superior ensemble who certainly has the right to commission and play the music that they enjoy performing. It is interesting to compare this concert/show with one I saw just a few weeks ago where a legendary ensemble played an entire program without saying one word and barely acknowledged that there even was an audience. Balance and proportion is everything. Charm and ebullience will go a long way but I don’t want to feel like I’m on the set of The View when I go to see a world-class piano trio. The encroaching “Muzakization” of chamber music will come back to haunt any short-term gains.