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There's nothing like a great start, and chamber music lovers were treated to a glorious beginning of the 2002-03 arts season September 6 on the UNC campus. The Ahn Trio (http://www.ahntrio.com/), consisting of violinist Angella and twins Lucia, piano, and Maria, cello, is an ensemble that from the first note draws you in so completely that everything but the music they are playing ceases to exist. That, of course, is something that all musicians aspire to, but it was even more important that evening considering the conditions under which they had to play and that the audience had to endure. Hill Hall's only rival for possibly the most uncomfortable and user- un friendly venue in the Triangle, is only a stone's throw away - Memorial Hall (now under major renovation). This evening was even worse since air conditioning for the entire building was not working. You entered a stifling hall with the sight and sound of two industrial blowers on stage working to cool off an excited, but wilting, audience. They couldn't leave those things on? But how could performers and audience stand it without them? The blowers were removed and we were off on an incredible journey.
The Ahn Trio's unofficial motto is "why shouldn't classical music be fun ?" Whether playing Haydn, the Doors, Piazzolla, or some very outstanding new composers, this "fun" trait becomes apparent. They started out as a more or less traditional piano trio with two early recordings of Dvorak, Shostakovich and Ravel. Lately they have expanded their range to commission new works and arrangements of rock and jazz pieces. The latter have helped them become more attractive to younger audiences; they have even performed on MTV. Purists may scoff at their marketing strategy, but this Trio delivers like none other you have heard.
As if to dispel any possible lingering doubts as to their "authenticity" and ability to play standard repertoire, they began the program with a Haydn piano trio. Before they began, Angella, the spokesperson for the group, explained that chamber music, as we know it, originated with Haydn. A charming and articulate speaker, she made everyone feel relaxed and part of the performance. There are a few great athletes, writers, and musicians for whom a very brief display of their skills is sufficient to know you are in the presence of greatness. After only the first several phrases of the Haydn, if anyone had the misguided notion that this is an over-hyped group, it was quickly dispelled. They had true insight into the character of the work and played as if they were one instrument. As befits their motto, they had a wonderful sense of energy, lightness and ease within the disciplined classical structure. Maria's cello had a beautiful deep, round, singing quality that, despite its secondary role to the violin, laid a foundation for this charming work.
The Trio then departed from the printed program as Angella continued to announce and give some background to the works they performed. First was "Lullaby," by Ron Yedidia, an Israeli composer currently living in New York. This was a beautiful, lyrical work, originally for cello and piano and rearranged for Trio by the composer.
Next was what may be becoming their biggest hit, an arrangement by Mical Rataj of "Riders on the Storm," by the Doors. For non-Boomers: this was a big hit in the late '60s, written by Jim Morrison; the first-rate arrangement begins with a depiction of a storm using the inside of the piano and brilliant string effects. It is here that it should be noted that it is quite difficult to play a remarkable arrangement like this and bring it off without making it sound like muzak. It was obvious that this was not being done to just appeal to a younger audience or in a condescending manner. The music was treated with the same respect as any work and you could tell by their body language that the three Ahns truly love, understand, and most of all feel this music. The first half closed with "Portena," or "Springtime," by the late Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla. Before they began, Angella commented how appropriate this piece was tonight since it felt like they were in South America because of the heat. The rhythmic energy of their playing of this tango was infectious; after it, the audience flocked to the doors for some cool air.
Back in the Hill Hall inferno we embarked on what Angella described as an "epic work." Swing Shift: Music for Evening Hours, by Kenji Bunch (http://www.yca.org/bunch.html [inactive 2/04]), is a brand new programmatic piece that depicts New York City from dusk to dawn. Bunch was a classmate of the Ahns at Juilliard, and this work is ample proof that his music will become better known and frequently played in the future. This is perhaps the finest evocation of New York since George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Although certain sections seem a bit derivative of Philip Glass and the minimalist style, it serves its thematic purpose well, starting with the "Night Flight" section, in which is exhibited the frenetic pace of people rushing home. Next is "Interhour," a sort of winding-down feeling as late night settles in and working people are off to bed. My favorite is the next section, "Club Crawl," a superb portrait of a late night jazz club. Again, just playing these notes as written will not do - you cannot fake this, as proven by several wretched recordings of written-out jazz parts for some very well-known classical virtuosos. These three artists became an authentic jazz trio and for that time you were not sweltering in Hill Hall but high above the City, late at night, young and in love and listening to beautiful ballads. A short transition called "Magic Hour" evolves into violent pizzicatos between the violin and cello that sound like insistent alarm clocks and honking cabs to signal the start of a hectic work day very different from the nocturnal journey we had just been on. The sold-out audience went wild and did their best to convince three very tired and hot performers to come back for one brief encore - "Hey Jude," a fitting end to an eclectic and electric evening. This may be one of the first concerts of the year but I already vote it as one of the best of the season.