Spokane was treated this weekend to a visit by the Ahn Trio: a remarkable ensemble comprised of a violinist, a cellist and a pianist who happen to be sisters. The trio has traveled the world, including every state in the union, for the last 20 years, preaching a gospel best articulated by Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it IS good.”
Disinclined to follow the example of other celebrated trios which have confined themselves to performing recurring cycles of the trios of Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert, the Ahn sisters opened themselves to every source of musical energy, so long as it “sounded good” and expressed the authentic standard of art, which is to affirm the value of life. For this weekend’s performances, pianist Luca Ahn was unable to appear due to health reasons. Her part was ably assumed by the trio’s long-time friend and collaborator Azusa Hokugo.
In planning the programs for the Spokane Symphony, music director Eckart Preu has adopted the same standard of openness, sometimes receiving push-back from those in the audience who have come to rely on having the world of music segmented into clear categories: classical, popular, and so on. As the number of sub-categories has proliferated, however, maintaining sharp dividing lines between them has become increasingly difficult. The Ahn Trio and Eckart Preu would say, I think, that such effort is a pernicious waste of time, because it inhibits us from experiencing fully the joy that music offers us.
Mark O’Connor is an American composer, teacher and fiddler who also ignores traditional boundary lines in music, as illustrated by the triple concerto, “March of the Gypsy Fiddler,” which he composed in 2010 for the Ahn Trio, and which they performed this weekend. Like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major Op. 53 (1803), it asks for a piano trio and an orchestra and is divided into three movements, and that is where the similarity stops. O’Connor based each movement on a fiddle tune he composed, and which has special significance for him.
Writing a triple concerto is not an easy task. It appears that even Beethoven found it challenging, as his Op. 53 is the least successful of his seven concertos. It must be admitted that, while containing many beautiful and well-fashioned passages, O’Connor’s concerto fails to engage, and consequently to overcome the challenges of balance and contrast posed by the form. Nevertheless, the passionate advocacy of the Ahn Trio made the most of its moments of tenderness and wit.
In interviews, Angella (violin) and Maria (cello) Ahn have spoken of their frequent stormy disagreements during rehearsal. In performance, however, it is very remarkable how perfectly synchronized and well-matched their techniques and performing styles are. The phrasing and tonal characteristics are so uniform as to create the impression that one is listening to a single musician performing on an eight-stringed instrument extending from a low C to the limits of human hearing. The impact on the listener is of great lyrical intensity and expressiveness, which is just what is needed to counter the concerto’s tendency to genial but long-winded and discursive repetition of charming but not inexhaustible fiddle tunes.
To provide a context for O’Connor’s contemporary piece, Preu preceded it with a little-known work by a younger contemporary of Beethoven, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, his “Eight Variations on O du lieber Augustin.” The tune itself is a Viennese folk song of the 17th century, though we may know it as, “Did You Ever See a Lassie Go This Way and That?” Hummel composed the work as light entertainment, and as a means of showing off the skills of some of his players. It served the same purposes on Saturday evening, as we were treated to some dazzling work on the flute by Bruce Bodden, on the bassoon by Lynne Feller-Marshall, and on the oboe by Keith Thomas. The brilliant variation for violin was thrown-off with apparent nonchalance by associate concertmaster Jason Bell, who took the first chair ordinarily occupied by Mateusz Wolski.
While a delightful tidbit, Hummel’s variations fail to penetrate even for a moment the exalted realm inhabited by the final work on the program, Franz Schubert’s final symphony, the C major D. 944, which is, like several other of the pieces he created in his final years, a work of incomprehensible genius and inestimable worth.
Among the many great gifts we have been given by Preu and his orchestra during the past 10 years none has surpassed, I am tempted to say equaled, this performance. It is an extraordinarily difficult work to perform, even for players who have cut their teeth on Mahler and Stravinsky. The demands it places on the orchestra are daunting. Every phrase in the work requires close attention from each and every player, and the piece is LONG. To achieve such concentration, unfailing attention to detail and perfection in execution, would be a triumph for any conductor and any orchestra on earth, now or in the past, on or off record. It will be broadcast by Spokane Public Radio (FM 91.1) at 7 p.m. March 5. Don’t miss it!
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