The Ahn Trio
Angella Ahn set her violin on her knee and peered out into the audience. "Are you awake out there?"
A few murmurs.
A little louder this time, and a smattering of "good morning"s.
"OK. We're going to start with a piece by an Argentinean composer, and when we're through, I'd love to hear what you think it's about."
The piece was Oblivion, an eerily beautiful work by tango master Astor Piazzolla. The place - some 5,000 miles to the north of Buenos Aires - was a high school auditorium in southeastern Minnesota. And Angella Ahn, who together with her sisters, Maria and Lucia, make up the Ahn Trio, was introducing an early morning performance at Century High School, the first visit of a two-day residency in Rochester that included four school appearances and a house concert. The day before they were in the studio with Bill McGlaughlin to record a program for Saint Paul Sunday.
Owing to the audience and the hour, Oblivion might at first have seemed an odd opener. Based on a usually lighthearted South American song form known as the milonga, Piazzolla's slow version conveys lost love with unflinching desolation. But the Ahns knew what they were doing. As soon as they finished, hands went up - the young performers and the old master had cast a spell, and some of the students' responses to it were downright eloquent. (Heartbreak isn't exactly scarce in high school, after all.) By the time the sisters plunged into Beethoven, the ears and hearts of their audience were ready for it.
The Rochester residency is the third such trip Saint Paul Sunday has taken to cities in Minnesota and nearby states with outstanding young ensembles. A fourth is scheduled in Saint Cloud this March with the Oberlin-inspired group eighth blackbird. The ventures got their start in 1997 when the manager of American Public Media's Fargo-Moorhead network station, Vern Goodin, approached Saint Paul Sunday senior producer Mary Lee with the idea of capturing McGlaughlin and one of his acclaimed guest groups when they were in Minnesota for sessions in local Fargo-Moorhead settings.
"The idea intrigued me," Lee says. "We already had these great musicians coming to town for the show, and so many of them are willing to perform now in the schools as a response to general cutbacks in educational arts funding. We had the contacts and means to bring them to Minnesota, so it was really just a matter of arranging some extra time and coordinating with the communities." That fall, after waiting and planning for the right fit, Lee and McGlaughlin headed north with the Eroica Trio. The success of that residency prompted a similar visit to Minnesota's Iron Range with the St. Lawrence String Quartet earlier this year and the Ahn Trio's appearances in Rochester last October.
House concerts, too, have been integral to each of the Saint Paul Sunday residencies, affording grown-up American Public Media supporters a first-hand taste of what students in their region have gotten to experience at school. Rochester's Al and Sharon Tuntland opened their beautiful home (and a Bösendorfer grand piano) for the trio, who performed before a standing-room-only gathering of some 55 guests. As Bill McGlaughlin noted at the event, chamber music was originally conceived for, and is best experienced in, intimate domestic settings - a fact not lost on guests that night. "The living room setting really revives the concept of chamber music," wrote one afterward. "If people haven't experienced a trio, a quartet or a soloist for that matter, outside the concert hall, they're missing something quite magical."
Wherever the Ahn sisters performed in Rochester, that magic went with them, while McGlaughlin's ongoing insights into each performance kept the dialogue invigorating. When selecting ensembles for ventures outside the studio, producer Lee has taken care to find artists who are at ease in expressing themselves in diverse surroundings, and whose spirit and style can dispel the highbrow myths about classical music that can put some younger audiences off. The Ahns - who recently modeled for Vogue and have appeared on MTV - fit the bill perfectly. And as listeners around the country already know, Bill McGlaughlin is a natural at talking to anyone about music that inspires him.
"He's so good at engaging people at wherever they happen to be," Lee continues. "My hope with the school sessions was that students wouldn't be afraid to ask him those questions that might be considered irreverent from adults - that their curiosity and fun wouldn't be squashed. So far, they haven't been afraid to ask anything." Linda Thompson, a music teacher in Rochester whose invaluable hometown savvy made the residency possible there, had similar kudos for the three sisters. "There were so many bubbly, effusive comments that it seems to me the Ahns must have floated all the way home back to New York!"
Ahn Trio Web site: www.ahntrio.com
Ahn Trio Discography: Currently