By Bill Rankin
CALGARY – Over 23 years, Toronto’s Gryphon Trio — violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys, and pianist James Parker — have explored the breadth of the piano trio repertoire. The ensemble’s 18 CDs, two of which were awarded Junos (Canada’s Grammy), are mostly devoted to the conventional classical territory of Beethoven, Dvořák, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, and Mendelssohn.
The Gryphon Trio have also commissioned 75 new works, some of which they’ve recorded, and have ventured into the realm of culturally eclectic multidisciplinary productions. Their collaboration with Toronto composer Christos Hatzis on Constantinople — an extended, multimedia work embracing visual images and theatricality — has been their most ambitious project of this kind.
The trio’s performance at the University of Calgary’s Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall on Nov. 25 — part of the Calgary Pro Musica series — was also a collaborative program, although on a more modest scale than Constantinople.
At the core of the Calgary program was a CD of songs released by the trio in 2011, drawing on various traditions, called Broken Hearts & Madmen. For this, the group enlisted Canadian soprano Patricia O’Callaghan, who also had a central role in Constantinople. The program included a few Piazzolla tangos from the trio’s 2008 Tango nuevo album.
The concert opened with the trio alone playing the “Autumn” section of Piazzola’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. (Arrangements of all four seasons are on Tango nuevo.) The piece gives the cellist and the violinist short, melancholic solo episodes, some verging on bluesy in the violin, which Patipatanakoon drew out nicely. Borys shaped the cello’s uniquely dark beauty nicely in his brief solos. In the second half, the trio played “Spring” from Piazzolla’s Seasons and the beautiful “Milonga del ángel.”
The Gryphon Trio’s authenticity comes from a settled sense of what their role is. None of the players showed more than was necessary to deliver the musical emotion called for. There was nothing gimmicky.
O’Callaghan has the same unaffected performance style. Tastefully passionate and warmly committed characterize her demeanor with a song, whether it is simple folk, pop, or cabaret flavored. She sang lyrics without embellishment. She was only as physical as she needed to be to convey the essence of a song, without any staginess, and most of the tunes she sang lent themselves to this calm, reserved approach. Even her accompanying hand-clapping was demure. And when she swayed her hips during one song, the sensuality was measured. Her technique was a means to an end, not an excuse to flaunt.
The acoustics of the hall are superb, but O’Callaghan was faintly amplified. Given how often she was in the foreground of the program, with the trio serving as happy supporters, making her unequivocally audible wasn’t a bad idea. Her métier is more in the vein of Weill and Brel than Mahler or Puccini, although she has classical training and has performed contemporary composers’ works, as well as those of pop songwriters, some of whom were featured.
She is fluent in French, Spanish, and English; all of the French, and especially the Spanish, felt natural. Carlos Gardel’s “Volver” had a convincing Latin sensibility. With the reflective “Curcurrucucu Paloma,” one could imagine O’Callaghan soothing a cranky baby to sleep. And she sang the folk tune “Los Peces” with playful jauntiness. Her treatment of Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” had no guttural effects or pronounced rolled r’s, but it had all the poignancy of the forlornly desperate lover’s plea.
Laurie Anderson’s “Pieces and Parts” is melodically simple, with a bittersweet lyric about American slaves speculating on the life history of a whale whose remains they’ve unearthed. O’Callaghan’s talent for quiet, reserved song interpretation was perfect for this type of music, and the trio did no more than necessary to quietly accompany her. Her shaping of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” captured the lyrics’ lament simply and directly.
O’Callaghan has interpreted the songs of Leonard Cohen, and the Broken Hearts & Madmen CD includes a Cohen tune, but not the one she sang Friday. The group performed Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” and given Cohen’s death on Nov. 7, the audience was clearly touched.
The tenor of the evening was notably subdued, notwithstanding the occasional Argentine outburst in bits of the tangos. Even the encore, “Oh, Watch the Stars,” was done at an adagio tempo, without any impulse to leave the audience emotionally upbeat. Folks left feeling content, based on what I could tell from reactions overheard in the lobby.
All in all, this program didn’t push the Gryphon Trio technically, but the blend of fine classical players supporting a fine singer not out to do any more than please and charm was just fine.
Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.