Gryphon Trio: 'We love Beethoven'

The Gryphon Trio will be thinking a lot about Beethoven when this Canadian ensemble performs locally for the Candlelight Concert Society Saturday, Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

"We love Beethoven," cellist Roman Borys says from his Toronto home. "When we're asked who our favorite composer is, it's usually Beethoven that is our answer."

And so Borys, violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon and pianist Jamie Parker are eager to launch into an all-Beethoven program comprised of the Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3; Trio in B-flat Major, WoO 39; Variations in E-flat Major, Op. 44; and Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 "Archduke."

Borys adds that no matter how often they perform his music, "there's a freshness and a clarity that we feel every time we sit down to play. We're never tired of him."

That kind of enthusiasm comes through in the group's concerts and recordings, but also in the pre-concert talks and on-stage introductions that they enjoy doing. Borys and his colleagues want to demystify classical music by talking about both the compositions and themselves.

"It's like a living biography, if you will," he says. "It's all about making it easier for audiences to listen actively to the music and not just have it be in front of them as passive listeners. These are hooks to the music."

Not only does the Gryphon Trio like to talk about the music, but it's happy to travel a long way to do so. Just prior to the upcoming concert in Columbia, the group had concerts in several European countries and also a Middle Eastern gig in Kuwait.

Because music crosses borders and pleases audiences around the world, the musicians who play it are accustomed to having their passports stamped. A Toronto native, Borys came to the United States for much of his training. He studied with Janos Starker at Indiana University and Aldo Parisot at Yale University.

When he and his colleagues aren't making trips to places like Kuwait and Columbia, they're grounded in Canada. They are artists in residence at the University of Toronto; and Borys is in his fourth season as artistic director of Ottawa's Chamberfest, which is the largest festival of chamber music in North America.

Although Borys says he and his colleagues felt it would be a good idea to place the emphasis on Beethoven for its Candlelight debut, the group's activities in Canada and on the road extend well beyond that great 19th-century German composer. A crucial aspect of the Gryphon Trio's identity is its devotion to the music of our own time. This group has commissioned around 75 new compositions by an international assortment of composers.

The emphasis on contemporary music includes an ambitious multi-media production of composer Christos Hatzis's "Constantinople," which is scored for mezzo-soprano, Middle Eastern singer, violin, cello, piano and electronic audiovisual media. This piece has been performed at venues including London's Royal Opera House.

And speaking of performances, the group loves collaborations with musicians and choreographers that take it from traditional concert halls to venues that are associated with other types of music. The latter includes Toronto's Lula Lounge, a venue for jazz and world music, and the musically adventurous Le Poisson Rouge in New York City.

Wherever they play, they want to present the music in a theatrically savvy manner. Borys loves to make adjustments to a theater's lighting, for instance, but quickly notes that he'll have to wait until he steps into the Columbia venue for the first time and scopes out the possibilities.

"When we're playing in a particular setting, we acknowledge that it's a theater and try to work with that facility (management) to work on the lighting and have it be more specific rather than a wash that would make it look like an interrogation room. It's more atmospheric that way. We do like to pay attention to that kind of detail."

He especially likes to put spotlights on the performers and thereby "eliminate the rest of the stage. We're exploring the possibilities of lighting design. I don't like to play around too much with colors, but I like shapes and using how they overlap."

Asked about his hands-on interest in this subject, he jokingly observes: "I've been known to climb ladders and do it myself."

When they aren't adjusting stage lights and then playing a broad repertory all over the place, the group is often found in recording studios. Their interest in various kinds of music is reflected particularly well in their recording "Broken Hearts and Madmen: Songs and Tangos of the Americas." Accompanied by vocalist Patricia O'Callaghan, they do songs by Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Laurie Anderson, as well as selections from Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Brazil.

Where the traditional repertory is concerned, the group's 15 recordings include a recent CD of piano trios by Beethoven that won the 2011 Juno Award from the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Whether shedding light on classical music in the concert hall, recording studio or classroom, the Gryphon Trio wants to take that music to a wider audience. That's why they're so devoted to an educational project called "Listen Up!" in which the three musicians, a composer and a music educator go into Canadian schools and work with students to create a brand-new composition for choir and piano trio.

"It's the key to building the audiences of the future," Borys says.

The Gryphon Trio performs on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., in Columbia. Tickets are $30, $28 for seniors, $12 for students. Call 410-997-2324 or go

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