Sisters' sounds are as striking as their looks
Young, hip and gorgeous, the three sisters in the Ahn Trio can speak volumes without saying a word.
Blending slinky dresses with modern and classical musical traditions, the sisters make up one of the best chamber music ensembles in the United States.
'Chamber music is very pure acoustic sound, making very strong statements,' Angella Ahn says. 'It's very special in that it's all instrumental.
'And what intrigues new audiences is its wordlessness Ñ the way it says so much without words. These are incredibly powerful emotions, and you can put your own words to it. The other neat thing is the intimate setting and the lack of amplification.'
Born in Seoul, South Korea, the Ahn sisters were raised by artistically minded parents in New Jersey. Maria and Lucia Ahn are twins; Angella is younger by two years.
Close as they are, the women don't live together, Angella Ahn says with a laugh: 'We sort of need our separate spaces. At one point, though, we did live in a four-block radius of each other.'
Angella, who plays the violin, lives on New York's Upper West Side. Maria and Lucia, who play the cello and piano, respectively, live in separate apartments in lower Manhattan.
This week, the trio is making its first visit to Portland for a performance at Reed College's Kaul Auditorium featuring music from their third, most recent CD, 'Ahn-Plugged.' The trip will include a student workshop at Buckman Elementary School in Southeast Portland.
Two compositions by Kenji Bunch, a close friend of the sisters, are featured in the concert program. Bunch, who was the composer-in-residence at Young Concert Artists in New York, grew up in Portland and graduated from Wilson High School in 1991.
The trio works with the composer any time it can.
'We all went to Juilliard together,' Angella says. 'Any time we get a commission or grant money, we think of Kenji. He's just brilliant. He gets commissions from everyone, and he's so nice on top of everything else. He really has had one of the biggest impacts on our trio.'
Bunch has lived in New York for the last 10 years. 'But he will never tell you he's a New Yorker,' Angella says. 'He will always tell you he's an Oregonian.'
This season Bunch had a commission from the Phoenix Symphony. He also is at work on a short solo for the violinist Midori.
'I'm really excited to be there,' he says of his return to Portland to attend the concert. 'It's not often I have something done in Portland. It's my home. It means so much more to have it done out there.'
The concert program also will feature pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Eric Ewazen, film composer Michael Nyman and some work by Astor Piazzolla. Perhaps most exciting for the performers and audiences is the premiere of Bunch's 'Swing Shift.'
'What's cool about that piece,' Angella says, 'is that Kenji actually wrote it a month ago, and we premiered in Salt Lake City, where it was performed along with a modern dance troupe. But we ended up not doing all of it. In Portland, we are doing the actual original score from beginning to end for the first time. That will be really, really cool.'
'Ahn-Plugged' is about bringing acoustic and instrumental music into the mainstream, Angella says:
'Growing up, we were really into taking in cultural events. This is a way to say, 'Hey, you guys should check this out!' Our parents were so into taking us to classical music concerts as kids. A lot of kids don't get that growing up these days. We also really want to work with young, living composers. It's so much more special to work on the music together.'
Questions about the sisters' good looks don't get old as much as miss the point, Angella says:
'It's just kind of a misconceived thing. If you saw us every day, we're really not that fashionable! We hardly ever match. We pack things that take up the least amount of room and roll up into little balls. I don't know how that all started. We even wind up swapping shoes. We go for comfort.'
On second thought, Angella adds: 'We like to look good. We're not going to go onstage in pukey greens.'
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