Although a number of string quartets have successfully updated that medium for today's gumbo of non-classical influences and styles, the piano trio has had no such pioneers for quite some time. It does now in the Ahn Trio, which presented an eclectic program of jazzy, snazzy original works Friday at the Barns at Wolf Trap.
These Juilliard-trained sisters didn't study traditional jazz and do not improvise, but they have really found their metier. While their instrumental skills would not be competitive in the strictly classical arena, they throw off jazz licks with aplomb and appear completely at home in the idiom. Perhaps even a little too much so. Performers who move and sway with the music are nothing new, but the Ahns (included in People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" feature a few years back) clearly understand the appeal of a good flounce. They are indeed fun to watch.
The program featured American, Israeli and Vietnamese composers, and its capstone was the premiere of a Wolf Trap commission for the trio, "Danceband" by Kenji Bunch -- a substantial and highly entertaining 25-minute work with refracted homages to Celtic fiddling, banjo music, nostalgic waltzes and even disco. While I can't see the Beaux Arts Trio playing this anytime soon, I can see a group that has taken on, for instance, the breezy Schoenfeld "Cafe Music" venturing into these waters. Time will tell. Two works by David Balakrishnan, "Skylife" and "Tremors," were especially successful as well.
-- Robert Battey
Borromeo String Quartet
The Boston-based Borromeo String Quartet, having just won a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, closed out the Dumbarton Concert Series on Saturday with one of the season's highlights -- music by Shostakovich, Beethoven and local boy wonder Tudor Dominik Maican. Aside from superb intonation and a wide dynamic range, the quartet manages to convey newness and surprise in familiar music without its appearing contrived. The players communicate on a molecular level; every detail has been worked out to fit the overall interpretation, and every phrase adds to or draws meaning from the previous one.
Maican's Quartet No. 2 was written last year when the composer was all of 17. At this point, it is not an exaggeration to say he has everything: idiomatic string writing; concise, goal-directed forms; good balance of rhythmic and melodic elements; and organic progression of ideas. He still lacks a distinctive voice, but so did every great composer other than Mendelssohn at that age. It will be fascinating to see what becomes of this gifted artist.
The Shostakovich Fifth Quartet was visceral, dramatic and unsettling. In the Beethoven Quartet, Op. 132, , while the climax of the "Heiliger Dankgesang" movement was not elemental enough -- too polite -- the rest of the performance was beyond praise. The group, for once, made sense of the overly repetitive second movement, giving it a coherent narrative, and the gnarly, ungrateful string writing in the finale emerged with clarity and purpose.
-- Robert Battey