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Gryphon Trio shines spotlight on teen composer

The Gryphon Trio in performance

Della Rollins/della rollins The Globe and Mail

Gryphon Trio

  • Music Toronto
  • At Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto on Thursday

It's easy to get the impression from the classical world that music composition is a mysterious task best undertaken by the dead. Rumours of current activity by the living are sometimes received as rumours it may be prudent to ignore.

Of course some audiences, like those that assemble for the concerts of Music Toronto, are fairly comfortable with the idea of hearing things written last month or last year. Some performers go out of their way to rustle up new work, and a few even agitate for the idea that composition isn't that mysterious – even children can do it.

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The Gryphon Trio has gone out of its way to demystify the process of creating music for piano trio, and by extension, for any cluster of classically minded musicians. Last year, the Toronto-based ensemble started an annual community program called Listen Up!, which includes a mentored workshop in which students write a piece together. The first project took place in Almonte, Ont., a former mill town west of Ottawa. Closer to home, the Gryphon has also participated in the young composers' program at Toronto's Claude Watson School for the Arts.

Lots of music groups do outreach activities, but usually the energy goes out to the target community and doesn't change much about what happens on the home stage. But the Gryphon had no qualms about playing a piece by one of Claude Watson's teenaged musicians during its latest Music Toronto, on the same program as pieces by Beethoven and Anton Arensky.

Ezra John Pablo's Trio was a trim, rather poignant piece, full of lyrical feeling. It deployed its themes in a rational, easily legible way, while retaining the capacity for small surprises and emotional effects that couldn't be traced to this or that turn of phrase.

The Gryphon (whose members are violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys and pianist Jamie Parker) also played a piece that came out of its first Listen Up! project – not a student work, but a related composition by Andrew Staniland, the Alberta-born composer who mentored the collective composition at Almonte.

Staniland's Solstice Songs was a linked series of three pieces, the first mainly skittish and gestural in style, with a lot of high-contrast instrumental effects, continued more somberly in the second movement, with its deeply thrummed bass tones from the piano. The third offered a sultry, lyrical kind of writing that Staniland kept interrupting with a busy perpetuum mobile that cascaded throughout the group. I found the latter business less interesting than the former, which I think he should have developed more. Solstice Songs, whose link with singing and song form seemed pretty tenuous, ended with a rugged, rapid wind-up to the final smashing, applause-begging chords.

The Gryphon's performance of Arensky's Trio No. 1 in D minor had many beautiful moments, beginning with Patipatanakoon's delicate opening statement, and continuing through passages of silky dialogue between instruments in the Elegia movement and the flowing finale. The waltz-like scherzo came out very boisterously, like a clown breaking the tension during a Shakespearean tragedy.

Beethoven's Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3 was a bit more problematic. There was a great deal of proficiency in the playing, yet the way the parts fit together felt a bit mussed at times. I was also not convinced by the Gryphon's collective sound in this piece. Parker's creamy tone, which I found very attractive if not so historically apt, seemed to project a different aesthetic than the dry, rather reedy sound coming from Borys's cello. Both he and Patipatanakoon seemed to have withdrawn some of the juice from their playing in this piece – a defensible choice, but one best made with unanimity throughout the group.

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Thursday's concert was recorded for later broadcast by CBC Radio Two.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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