Aoi Trio and Mark Thomas during this interview
© Suntory Hall

Speaking over Zoom has become quite the norm these days. Yes, you feel connected, but you’re still distant. But talking to the players of the Aoi Trio about their thoughts and experiences felt like a much more personal experience. Formed in 2016 by Kosuke Akimoto (piano), Kyoko Ogawa (violin) and Yu Ito (cello), the Aoi Trio takes its name from the initials of their family names and also from the Japanese flower aoi, hollyhock in English, which means, rather appropriately, aspiration or fruitfulness. Talking with honesty and openness, they were refreshingly engaging as they spoke about their future plans, and modest about their achievements to date.

I asked how they first got together as a piano trio. Ogawa explains, “We first met at the Suntory Hall Chamber Music Academy. We all came from the same part of Japan and hoped to play concerts in our hometowns, so we decided to form Aoi Trio for a chamber music class at the Tokyo University of the Arts.” In these formative years, though already accomplished musicians in their own right, adapting to chamber music can be an art – a natural or acquired skill. I was interested in their approach. For one thing, they are acutely aware of the difference in the dynamics and interactions between the players when performing as soloists compared to playing in ensembles. Their musical awareness, diligence and grounding, thanks largely to the Suntory Hall Chamber Music Academy, has allowed them to recognise these subtleties so that they perform not as a group of three individual musicians but as a unified piano trio. In fact, even at this stage of their career, Vincent Coq of the Trio Wanderer has described the Aoi Trio as having “a real trio sound and spirit.” 

Aoi Trio, from left: Kyoko Ogawa (violin), Kosuke Akimoto (piano) and Yu Ito (cello)
© Nikolaj Lund Photography

But this didn’t happen overnight. For example, Akimoto recognises the infinite possibilities for the piano in chamber music, but that the piano trio is the most popular grouping. “There are many famous composers who wrote fantastic pieces for piano trio. I worked very hard to understand not only the essence and feel of chamber music, but also the piano’s role not as soloist but as accompaniment.” For Ogawa and Ito, they explain that there was already some familiarity between them because they had already performed together as a string quartet, having played at the Banff International String Quartet Competition in the Quartet Arpa, so they know each other’s styles well. However, Ogawa sees a clear distinction, in style and approach, between playing in a string quartet and playing in a piano trio. Ito also recognises the delicate balance that needs to be struck between the instruments in a piano trio, with the cello in particular needing to make sure that it has enough “open sound” to counter the age-old problem of the piano’s “very big sound”. 

A catalyst for them was joining the Suntory Hall Chamber Music Academy from 2014 to 2016, which Ogawa considers “the best place in Japan to study chamber music, helping us to learn repertoire and prepare for music competitions. It also gave us so many opportunities to play with well-known musicians so we could learn from them, particularly in the transition from rehearsal to concert.” The next significant ingredient in their development was achieving major success in competition. Winning first prize at the prestigious ARD International Music Competition in Munich is a rarity for a piano trio, something that has only occurred five times in the competition's long history, and the Aoi Trio achieved this in September 2018. This acted as a springboard for their international career. “We never believed that we would win first prize”, confessed Akimoto, “but it has given us a very great opportunity to play more concerts, not only in Japan but also in Europe, and especially in Germany”, where they are currently based.  

Their choice of music is impressive and intriguing. Looking over the wide range of repertoire that they have performed over the last two years, it reads like the sort of thing you’d expect from an ensemble that has been around for ages: all of Beethoven’s piano trios, both of Shostakovich’s, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Fauré, Martinů and Mendelssohn (interestingly, choosing the less common of his two piano trios). Their forthcoming sequence of concerts over the coming months in both Japan and Europe is equally enterprising, with works from some of the above composers mixed with some they have not performed before.

But this has come at a price. While the Aoi Trio has been starting to experience the more enjoyable side of artistic life – musical interpretation and repertoire selection, for example – things beyond their control have made their journey and future career plans much more difficult. At a time when they were just starting to spread their wings internationally, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. For their performance engagement in Europe in particular, it has been a very difficult time for well over a year, the same as it has for other artists. After winning the ARD competition, it was expected that many concert organisers would have been planning to include them in their programmes in late 2021 or 2022. However, they were forced to postpone many events for a couple of years and, therefore, it has been very hard trying to secure new concert contracts. While this has made musical life very difficult for everyone in the profession, it has created particularly harmful conditions for the careers of young artists. 

On the sunnier side of the street, they are now pursuing their new plans with positivity and renewed vigour. And they are particularly excited about their return to Suntory Hall on 19th June 2021 for a concert at its annual Suntory Hall Chamber Music Garden festival, which will be both live and livestreamed. It is a mouth-watering programme too. As Akimoto explains, “Beethoven’s works are very important for the piano trio. He wrote seven piano trios and we are playing all of them over the next seven years at the festival – one a year until 2027. So this year, we will play the Op. 1-1 to start our seven-year journey. This year is also Saint-Saëns’ memorial year, so we have chosen his Piano Trio no. 1, a youthful piece and very fresh.” And with Dvořák‘s glorious Piano Trio no. 3 making up the programme, this will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of their year.

Aoi Trio at Suntory Hall in a celebratory concert after winning the ARD Competition Munich
© Suntory Hall

But that’s not all. The Aoi Trio is also branching out into the world of the concerto, having notched up a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto already in 2021 and venturing into less charted territory in Alfredo Casella’s Triple Concerto with the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra later in the year. There aren’t many triple concertos around, so they are looking forward to the challenges of the Casella piece, with its rich blend of 20th-century romantic and neo-classical styles. Akimoto says they are relishing the opportunity to perform this rarely heard work, which he describes as “like a symphony, with a gorgeous acoustic and nice sonority”.

They are no strangers to modern music, with experience in performing piano trios from the likes of Ives, Henze and Srnka and Japanese composers like Toshio Hosokawa, and an intriguing collaboration with clarinet later in the year, in France, in works by Hindemith and Adès. They are keen to make sure that their performances of some of these more uncompromising pieces are filled with the same commitment and intensity as for Beethoven and Schubert, but equally, as Ogawa suggests, this is an area they feel they must also explore further to widen their repertoire and express different meanings in their music.

Away from live performances, the Aoi Trio has already released two recordings, covering works by Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn and Mendelssohn. I asked them if they had any future recording plans. “Yes,” they delight in telling me, “we are planning to record in Germany, maybe in September, but the details have not yet been agreed.” With this alongside their rejuvenated concert schedule, their future looks bright – so watch this space.

And on a final note, if you’re as intrigued by pre-concert rituals as I am, you might be interested to learn that, for members of the Aoi Trio, they find that meditation works wonders – that and the routine of polishing shoes. Relaxation certainly does come in different forms!

Click here to find out more about the full programme of the Suntory Hall Chamber Music Garden.
This article was sponsored by Suntory Hall.