The North Carolina Symphony's Summerfest continues at its home base of the Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, North Carolina, with the emphasis on “summer.” With fans of all sizes lining the stage to make the musicians’ (but probably not their instruments’) lives tolerable, the program’s guest artist was the very chic Ahn Trio. This ensemble is a conventionally configured piano trio that has made a very lucrative living from stretching the concept of this most traditional of chamber ensembles. When pushing the envelope, especially with a revered musical institution, there are bound to be highs and lows: this performance and the works this trio played were way to the left of such a graph.
The Ahn Trio’s first selection was one that has become one of their “greatest hits”: an arrangement by Rataj of the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” Very badly scratchy and screechy amplified violin and cello made this a rather unpleasant experience, although I have heard this played indoors by this trio and it was quite effective. The sub-par sound system at Koka is a festering and much discussed issue, so there's no need or point in piling on any further.
In their excellent recordings and most of their performances, the Ahn Trio has championed the compositions of their Juilliard classmate, violist, and good friend Kenji Bunch. I have greatly enjoyed his past works and thought them to be superb examples of how you can meld the traditional piano trio with contemporary and even pop music. Unfortunately, the performance of one of his newest works, the Hardware Concerto, tread dangerously close to embarrassing – and this had nothing to do with the sound system. This three movement work is a hodge-podge of styles ranging from a quasi Bollywood soundtrack to a disastrous third movement, “With a strict groove,” that attempts to re-create 70s funk. This was a formulaic 12-bar blues progression with the violin playing tired wah-wah pedal licks, the electric piano sounding like one in a bad 1979 wedding band, and the brass section chiming in with pointy, punctuated chords. Watch any rerun of The A-Team and you will basically hear this work; the audience loved it.
William Henry Curry, resident conductor and Summerfest artistic director, has made it one of his missions to give as much exposure as possible to American music, without genre boundaries. This program was a sampler of short pieces and single movements from larger works. You can hardly go wrong with anything by George Gershwin, and a spirited performance of the very popular “Strike Up the Band” opened the second half. Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” (the "Pachelbel Canon" of rags) showed the exuberant energy of turn-of-the-20th-century America. When played side-by-side in the same evening with pure “classical” works by George Whitefield Chadwick and Howard Hanson, it is hard to deny the fact that jazz is still the most lasting, influential, and original musical art form to emerge from the United States. It often takes “foreign” composers to recognize the true musical genius of indigenous styles like jazz (e.g. Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, and Stravinsky) and incorporate it successfully into their music, and so was the case with a movement from Four Centuries Suite by British composer Eric Coates. He captured the rhythmic and harmonic vitality of this uniquely American style without being cloying and too literal.
Bass Trombonist Terry Mizesko is becoming recognized as a composer to be reckoned with, and a performance of his “Appalachian Lament” from Highland Suite was the highlight of the evening. This is a stunningly beautiful, plaintive, and meditative work that mesmerized the audience; paradoxically, it was perhaps the quietest I had ever heard a crowd, including indoors! The orchestra played with great sensitivity and love, no doubt for the beauty of the score and the fact that it was one of them that created it.
Summerfest continues July 4, 10, and 17. For details, see our calendar.