Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Simply Ahnforgettable October 12, 2012 by Carol Schmidt • Published 10/12/12

Angella Ahn gracefully balances duties as MSU's violin professor with being a member of one of the hottest classical piano trios in the world
Angella Ahn might be considered something of the Clark Kent of the classical piano trio world.

Most days Ahn is MSU's beloved violin teacher, known for her mix of high expectations and compassion.

Then suddenly, she catches a jet, dons a beautiful dress and designer shoes, and she is a member of one of the most innovative and popular classical piano trios in the world.

While it is not easy to commute from Bozeman to concerts throughout the globe, the Juilliard-educated Ahn balances her two roles as precisely and gracefully as she places her fingers on violin strings. In fact, she is clear that this is a life that she has joyously chosen.

"I feel lucky that I'm able to live in Bozeman," Ahn said at a popular restaurant where everyone from the waitress to the patrons at the next table call her by name. "It is such a beautiful place, maybe the most beautiful place--and I can't imagine living anyplace else. I love how it makes me feel. That's also why I play music. I love how beautiful music is. That is the reason I do what I do."

Beauty is a word often used to describe the Ahn Trio, a group composed of Ahn and her twin sisters Maria and Lucia, which has set the traditional musical form of the classical piano trio on its head. Most piano trios dress in black and white and play a repertoire that hasn't changed in centuries. The Ahns, who once made People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list, wear vibrantly hued clothing and play music that is moving and fresh. In recent months the group has performed at venues as diverse as the White House, Argentina's Teatro Colon and Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco before sold-out crowds and to standing ovations.

When she's back in Bozeman, Ahn inspires similar enthusiasm from her MSU students and colleagues, according to Greg Young, interim director of the MSU School of Music.

"She is a big-time teacher," Young said. "Normally, you would have to go to Seattle, Minneapolis, L.A., New York--a big city--to find a teacher with her experience level and quality. She's very organized about her schedule and her devotion to her students. Plus, she's just such a great person who loves to teach and live in Bozeman."

While Ahn has been living in Bozeman and teaching at MSU for three years, she has traveled to Bozeman since 2000 when MSU hosted a performance of the Ahn Trio at the Gallatin Gateway Inn. There she met her husband, a naturalist who leads adventure tours throughout the world, and who also calls Bozeman his home base.

Travel has been a way of life for most of Ahn's existence. Born in South Korea, she began playing the violin before she started school. When Angella was 10, their mother, Young Joo Rhee, immigrated to New Jersey with her daughters.

"Even if music is a hobby, make it the best work you can do. Make the most beautiful sound you can make. Because music is a basic need. It's like love."
-- Angella Ahn
"My mother was, is, the strongest person I know. She brought us to this country by herself when she was in her 30s. She was like Superwoman," Ahn recalls. "We were not a wealthy family. Our mom didn't have anyone to really help her. And she was definitely not a Tiger Mom."

Ahn said the girls were motivated to excel in music on their own. They were accepted to the Juilliard Pre-College, a select program that offers Saturday instruction for gifted young musicians. In 1987 Time magazine featured the Ahn sisters in a story about Asian-American whiz kids. All three were later admitted to the Juilliard School, one of the country's top music schools, where they earned bachelor's and master's degrees.

At Juilliard Pre-College Angella met the late Dorothy DeLay, the famed violin instructor with whom Ahn studied through graduate school and beyond.

"(DeLay) is who I channel every time I work with my students," Ahn said. "She was always cheering us on with kind words, but never accepted anything less than the highest level.

"I think what made Ms. DeLay so important in my life is that I didn't only learn how to play the violin from her. I learned about American culture. I learned to be assertive. To be a kind and positive person. To be a good listener. To dream really big."

Dreaming big, the three sisters formed the Ahn Trio while in graduate school. Their careers have built steadily since. They have been featured in Vogue and GQ magazines and modeled jeans for Gap clothing store ads and designer Anne Klein.

They have attracted the attention of many contemporary composers who have written new works for them including Michael Nyman, Kenji Bunch, Pat Metheny and others. They have collaborated with many artists outside of classical music, such as the Czech rock group Tata Bojs and the modern dance group the Parsons Dance Company. A So You Think You Can Dance dance choreographed to one of their recordings is nominated for an Emmy. And the trio performed at a TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C.

Last fall the trio was invited to perform at the White House before President and Michelle Obama as well as the president and first lady of the Ahns' native South Korea. It was, Ahn says, "the most special moment of my life." Both her mother and husband were able to attend the state dinner, and Ahn sat at Hillary Clinton's table. The following morning a photo of the Ahn sisters appeared on the style section cover of The Washington Post.

Ahn has long taught master classes and workshops, but has enjoyed working with MSU students over a longer period of time.

Her students say that they feel "unbelievably fortunate" to have a teacher with Ahn's training and performance experience.

"Every day I think about how lucky I am to have her," said Kathryn Huether, a junior majoring in music from Absarokee. "Ever since I started taking lessons from her, my entire violin playing has turned around. I've become more confident. I've enjoyed my music more. We work so hard on everything from performance to intonation. Then she tells us to have fun and to be sure to enjoy ourselves when we play. That's what I love about her. Because music is supposed to be enjoyable."

Ahn said she also imposes a high standard on her students, which is important for both music and life. She tells them that if they want to play at any level--from teaching in a high school to becoming a performer--they need to play well.

"You play moving music because it's something you want to do," Ahn said. "You want beauty and control in your life. Even if music is a hobby, make it the best work you can do. Make the most beautiful sound you can make. Because music is a basic need. It's like love. How can you live life without music? It's just so important." ■