Friday, May 5, 2006

Ahn Trio

Nice looks and slick packaging may sell CDs, but they don't necessarily translate into fine live musicmaking. The Ahn Trio features three physically attractive and technically solid sisters from Korea whose recordings on the EMI label have met commercial success. Their concert Wednesday evening at the National Museum of Women in the Arts had its appeal, but the overall impression was of an ensemble that has lost its roots.

The program underscored that the trio has converted entirely to crossover and contemporary fare. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the music was far from adventurous and nothing of an improvement over the rich piano-trio repertoire in which the group became initially grounded.

David Balakrishnan's "Tremors" and Kenji Bunch's "Swing Shift" are meant to evoke, respectively, earthquakes and New York after dark. Funny, then, that the two sounded surprisingly similar, with loose textures and flowing melodies that never strayed far from center. The trio played with confidence, although the essential tone of each player lacked a certain purity.

Arrangements of rock and popular songs made up the second half. The rewards and demerits of this program were apparent in the trio's rendition of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm." A tennis ball struck on the piano strings created a grand, expansive warble, while tremolo strings added to the tempestuous mood. The piece unfortunately devolved into a predictably colored work, with the violin taking much of the well-known lyrics. A canned stage act and the musicians' inclination to sway all over the place created further distractions, taking the group further and further from the refined musicmaking one expects from a group with such skill and talent.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Barbara Hollinshead And Howard Bass

Mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead hardly put a foot wrong in her lunchtime recital with lutenist Howard Bass on Wednesday at the National Gallery. Throughout this program of Renaissance and baroque rarities -- seldom-encountered composers such as Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Gregorius Huwet outnumbered more familiar ones such as Cavalli and Caccini -- Hollinshead treated the songs with sensitively gauged phrasing and the kind of pure, limpid tone reminiscent of a boy alto. Her sense of early music style was keen, and emotion was never allowed to disrupt the musical line.

And therein lay the problem. Although these songs represent four European countries and more than a hundred years of composition, they all share one thing: texts brimming over with extreme emotion. Yet this purple prose -- with such phrases as "My mistress is dead, and my heart withers" or "One burning arrow is the cause of all my ills, which makes me always at war" -- went by with all the agitation of someone complimenting a well-kept flower bed or a nicely turned custard. Love her or not, Cecilia Bartoli's emotionally fraught renditions of early music have changed the landscape of what's acceptable to express in songs like these. With Hollinshead, style and beautiful sound seemed the paramount concerns.

If Bass's lute technique proved variable in most of the solos he played, his accompaniments were sprightly and elegantly supportive, and his tone was unfailingly lovely.

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