I was treated to both, thanks to the Ahn Trio and baritone vocalist Christópheren Nomura. Tonight's performance at Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall was part of UNLV's Charles Vanda Master Series of fascinating performers.
Gee, nobody ever wrote music for me! Of course, these ladies were studying at the Juilliard School at an age when a swing set interested me more than my saxophone lessons. Darned prodigies. The Ahn Trio performed several compositions written especially for them, and these pieces showcased the enthusiastic, expressive performance that has earned these ladies rave reviews for years now.
The first piece, the challenging 'Swing Shift' by Kenji Bunch, was intended to depict nightlife in New York. Too modern! Clunky and repetitive, it was like a bumpy ride on the subway. After this odd start, I was relieved to hear the somber, melodic 'Lullaby' by Ronn Yedidia and especially the musical variety of 'Diamond World' by Eric Ewazen. This third piece featured wonderful harmonies and chord progressions that sounded freshly un-classical but not weirdly modernistic like the Bunch piece.
A trio is perfect for allowing the listener to pick out the individual instruments while also enjoying the ensemble sound. Since tonight's music was written for the Trio, the music was well suited to this way of listening. Maria's cello, Angella's violin, and Lucia's piano constantly overlapped in their parts, one handing the melody off to another and picking up the background harmony. Body language was used for coordination, and I knew a change in the music was usually imminent whenever Maria glanced over her shoulder to see exactly when Lucia would strike her next note or chord.
Okay, not every piece was actually written for the Ahn Trio. The Doors' song 'Riders on the Storm' is a favorite of Lucia's, and Czech composer Michal Rataj had transcribed the tune for the Trio to play. I was skeptical at first, but it really worked! It also explained the tennis ball sitting on the piano: while the other two ladies depicted rising winds at the beginning with quick, nervous tremolos on their strings, Lucia bounced the ball on the grand piano's wires to simulate thunder. Betcha never saw Horowitz do that. It was clever and quite convincing, and following it was a marvelous intro of eighth notes on cello backed by beautifully cascading keyboard notes. Angella carried the melody in the first verse and later provided some very stylish 'garnish' as Maria and then Lucia took the melody, the latter playing jazzy, syncopated chords. The song ended with more storm sounds that trailed off quietly but with surprising intensity. It was better than the original! You can hear this song on the trio's "Groovebox" CD.
The last programmed piece was 'Primavera Portena' by Astor Piazzolla. This was genuine Argentine tango music: tricky rhythms carried by instruments rather than percussion, and great energy combined with old-world romance and sensuality. A couple I later visited with agreed that you could almost hear the accordion that usually is an integral part of such music.
The cello appeared to be as large as its player, but Maria gamely carried it with her as the ladies returned for several bows and then an encore, in which they surprised us with a brief rendition of the Beatles' 'Hey Jude'. Like the Doors tune, it was nicely adapted and very melodic. The evening's second act spoke the truth when he came out after intermission and said, "How the heck do you follow the Ahn Trio?"
He needn't have worried. Christópheren Nomura is a highly accomplished vocalist whose rich tone and exuberant stage presence make him as much fun as the Ahns. Nomura has done a great deal of operatic and concert work, but simple recitals such as tonight's performance are a specialty for him.
The first piece, Aaron Copland's arrangement of the revivalist song 'Zion's Walls', revealed a problem with deep voices: they don't carry as well as higher voices. Belting out this inspiring tune near his volume limit, Nomura could produce the sound, but he sacrificed the clear enunciation normally heard in quieter pieces. The acoustics of Ham Hall couldn't have helped, either.
'Willie Has Gone To The War', the first of several nineteenth-century songs by Stephen Foster, showed more of Nomura's great vocal finesse. I think his voice was better at lower volume - less forced, and somehow richer. 'If You've Only Got A Moustache' showed off Nomura's (and Foster's) humorous side, while 'Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair', a very pretty but sad song about Foster's lost wife, again displayed the singer's light touch while testing the upper limit of his pitch range.
Accompanying Nomura was the marvelous pianist and composer David Alpher. Tonight Nomura sang four of Alpher's own 'Songs of Transcendence', in which the pianist had set to music the poetry of such authors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jones Very, and Margaret Fuller. These pieces struck me as somewhere between classical and "new age," with hints of jazz. The layering of complex, mostly unresolved chords created a strong sense of flow, and Alpher's touch on the keyboard was fantastic. I found myself focusing on the piano more than the lyrics. More information on this music is available at www.davidalpher.com.
Okay, more fun! Just before Alpher's compositions, he and Nomura had performed the delightfully incomprehensible Copland minstrel song 'Ching-a-ring-chaw', and the two finished the show with three William Bolcom pieces: 'The Song of Black Max' was a whimsical, faux-dramatic mystery tune; 'Waitin'' was melancholy, with a spare, pretty piano melody. The third piece, 'Amor', was a jazzy, show-tunish romp that displayed the expressive acting talent that adds to Nomura's singing. This song didn't have a big ending, but it was still a nice, upbeat finale. And it's not the last you'll hear from these rising stars of classical music.
For more information on UNLV's "Hot Ticket Season" performances, visit the Performing Arts Center at http://pac.nevada.edu. For the Ahn Trio: www.ahntrio.com.
Reviewed at Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall, Las Vegas; December 6, 2002, by Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Entertainment Editor.