This trio of Korean-born sisters sits astride two marketing trends in classical music, turning heads both with their haute-couture duds (and good looks) and with their genre-bending unorthodoxy -- their concerts intersperse repertory standards with rock numbers, crossover material like Astor Piazzolla, and contemporary works, some composed for the group. Ahn-Plugged, their new CD, strengthens both these aspects of their emerging identity. On the cover, the sisters, known for rollerblading around lower Manhattan, gallivant across a city street carrying a white, graffiti-covered cello case. Inside is an assortment of contemporary pieces, only one of them (Leonard Bernstein's youthful Trio of 1937) in more than one movement. "Here," we learn from the notes, "different styles of music co-exist to be shared and experienced by all without any rigid rules." That means a bevy of Neo-Romantic pieces; Michael Nyman's The Heart Asks Pleasure First is already well known from its use in the art-film hit The Piano. There are two works by Piazzolla, the Argentine tango-classical fusionist whose work is enjoying an extraordinary revival, an arrangement of a 1985 David Bowie recording made with the Pat Metheny Group, and works by Henji Bunch and Eric Ewazen that add percussion to the trio.
It all sounds like just another commercially inspired attempt to draw younger audiences to classical music, but the Ahn Trio plays well and exudes genuine enthusiasm for what they do. The group communicates the spirit of contemporary conservatory students (all three sisters are Juilliard graduates) who have grown up with popular music and have been fundamentally touched by it, yet are deeply committed to a place for classical music in a pop-dominated world. The zest that pervades Ahn-Plugged makes a nice contrast with the studied San Francisco cool of the Kronos Quartet, the group's most obvious predecessor, and high quality here seems compatible with classical music's pop-oriented cutting edge.