Classically trained, the Ahn Piano Trio devotes itself to dissolving musical boundaries. That mission has registered in the non-classical world.
In 2008 the Ahn Trio was the only classical group invited to the iTunes LIVE Festival in London. Their successful tours with the Czech rock band, Tata Bojs (pronounced Tata Boys) resulted in a joint album, “Smetana.”
The Ahn Trio opens the four-concert Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series on Thursday, July 1, in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. Tickets to concerts in the series are free, but tickets are required. The Ahn Trio consists of Angella Ahn, violin; Maria Ahn, cello; and Lucia Ahn, piano. Maria and Lucia are twins; Angella is their junior by two years. They live in New York City.
“We are not your traditional trio,” Angella Ahn says in a telephone interview from her second home in Montana. “We always felt that nothing was excluded. The Tatas are not typical, either. They also feel that there are no limits. From the moment we sat down, we clicked. Our musical visions are similar.”
The oldest piece on the Princeton program of the Ahns is Leonard Bernstein’s Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano, completed in 1937, when the composer was 19. “It’s a combination of pop and classical,” Ahn says. “Bernstein has a bigger-than-life love and passion for melody. He also has an amazing sense of humor.”
Kenji Bunch’s “Danceband,” the second composition in the Princeton concert, a five-piece suite, was written more than a generation later. Bunch, a classmate of the Ahns at Juilliard, wrote the piece for them; it was commissioned by Virginia’s Wolf Trap Festival. “Kenji likes doing dances of different styles from different periods and different parts of the world,” Ahn says. “‘Danceband’ is as if you’re wearing a different costume for each movement. There’s a slipjig, an Irish dance; a sarabande; a backstep, an old-time Appalachian fiddle tune with open strings, where the piano’s sound is muted with a towel; a romantic 19th-century waltz; and a disco boogie.
“After intermission we’ll do a group of shorter works,” Ahn says. The selections include diverse pieces from “Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac,” the Ahns’ latest album. “The most magical thing about music is that you are able to play a huge array of music in different styles if you have the passion for it. You don’t have to have listened to it since you were a baby.”
Ahn singles out a composition by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny as one of the ensemble’s favorite pieces. “Pat has toured in Korea and knows Korean culture very well. He wanted to make it uniquely ‘us.’ It even has a Korean title, ‘Yuryung,’ which literally means ‘ghosts.’ In Korea a nighttime taxi driver takes people who are drunk to their homes. Pat was thinking about being that person and seeing clients at that strange time. For me, it’s a beautiful landscape piece. It’s nightlife in Seoul. It’s powerful, evocative, and beautiful. You have to hear it to believe it.”
The Ahns habitually interact with the audience at concerts. “Most programs that we play were either written or transcribed for us,” Ahn says. “It’s important to tell audience members our personal outlook and how the piece came about.”
The Ahn Trio presents their personal outlook, in addition, through their own label, LAMP (Lucia, Angella, Maria Productions), where they make their own decisions. They formed the label some 10 years after they were out of school. “We wanted to have a place where we could be really creative, making records, maybe designing tee-shirts,” Ahn says. “We wanted to create an umbrella where every creative decision is made by us — content, guests, everything. All three of us like to think outside the box. It was the right time to try something like LAMP. When you’re young and just out of school, you don’t have the necessary confidence.
“‘Lullabye for My Favorite Insomniac’ was initially ours, and was picked up by Sony,” she says. “It was the first album that we co-produced. Sony didn’t alter anything.”
Although the Ahn family comes from Seoul, South Korea, their father, who is in publishing, is the only member of the family not in the United States. The sisters came to New York with their mother in 1981, when Angella was nine and her sisters were 11, and pursued their musical studies at Juilliard. A columnist for a Korean daily, their mother also writes poetry and is working on novel.
By 1994 all three members of the ensemble had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard. Along the way, it came to them that forming a piano trio would be an agreeable way to proceed professionally. The trio has played in all 50 states, and in 25 countries. At the top of the list of countries not yet performed in are Iceland and Spain.
“We have different tastes in non-musical things,” Ahn says. “But when it comes to music, we have very similar tastes. We’re kind of unified. That’s what makes it possible for us to play well together. We’re drawn to passionate, emotional, beautiful music. We love melody. We like music that tells a story. We sculpt it as we play.”
The Ahns appeal to young audiences. They make a point of doing workshops and performances in schools. Their performances can leave a lasting impression.
My granddaughter, Margaret, accompanied me to an Ahn performance in 1997, when she was eight. We were both struck by the fact that Angella’s skin seemed to be sprinkled with glitter, and remember that she told us which gel she used. Margaret doesn’t recall the details but says, “I just remember that they were three young girls who were really great performers. I thought that the sparkles were cool! I was eight then, and I am now 21. It was a long time ago. The fact that I remember anything is impressive to me.”
Do the members of the ensemble ever disagree, I ask. Ahn laughs. “We’re constantly arguing,” she says. We’re sisters.
“Maria is the most creative,” she continues. “She’s our art director. She’s in charge of images and pictures. She’s also the most creative musically. She thinks big. I’m very detail-oriented. My sisters say that I’m always nagging them. Lucia’s in the middle. She’s the pianist; she holds things together. She organizes everything in the right place. She’s a little bit like me and a little bit like Maria. She can switch. Both of my sisters are definitely more artistic than I am.”
I note that the members of the Ahn trio are particularly stylish. Angella is surprised. “Stylish?” she asks. “I don’t see it, honestly. As performers, for concert wear, we want to portray ourselves in the most professional, esthetically pleasing way. We live in New York. We’re not considered stylish except in the classical music world.”
Everybody with an Internet connection can have their own take on the Ahns’ stylishness. Their MySpace stage is www.myspace.com/ahntrio. Their website is www.ahntrio.com. Videos of the trio can also be found on YouTube.
Ahn Trio, Princeton University Summer Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, July 1, 8 p.m. Free tickets available at the box office at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. 609-570-8404. www.pusummerchamberconcerts.org.
Also, Carducci String Quartet, Wednesday, July 14, 8 p.m.; Georgia Guitar Quartet, Monday, July 19, 8 p.m.; Leipzig String Quartet, Tuesday, July 27, 8 p.m.