The Gryphon Trio and Calidore String Quartet at Tippet Rise: Talking about Perfect Halls and Great Chamber Music
Lewin: Tippet Rise Art Center has a jewel box of a concert hall: the Olivier Music Barn. Audiences love it, and so do all the world-class musicians who come to Tippet Rise each year. Two great chamber music ensembles – the Gryphon Trio and the Calidore String Quartet – performed Tippet Rise the same weekend in September 2022, and sat for interviews in front of their audiences. As the name suggests, “chamber music” was created for intimate performance spaces – in Baroque palaces. You may not think that sounds intimate, but Joseph Haydn composed his music for the room in a European palace that the engineering and design firm Arup used as the model for the Olivier Music Barn.
MUSIC: GRYPHON: Haydn: Piano Trio in A Major, Hob. XV:18
Ryan: Smaller, more resonant halls such as this one are ideal for what we do and give us the freedom to make music with the hall and not to always be obsessed just with projection.
Lewin: That’s Ryan Meehan, second violinist of the Calidore String Quartet. Given the economics of modern concert-going, a lot of chamber music concerts now take place in large auditoriums. But Gryphon Trio violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon says…
Annalee: The 3000-seaters or plus don’t interest me as much, just because I like to see people. I like to feel people. So we actually have I mean, I love the house concerts, honestly, people are literally right – I could hit them. I love that. They get to feel my sweat and I get to hear them breathe, and it’s meaningful.
Lewin: Jeffrey Myers, the first violinist of the Calidore String Quartet, also acknowledges the importance of the concert venue.
MUSIC: CALIDORE: Beethoven: Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3
Jeff: In more intimate spaces, we have the energy of our quartet that we’re playing with, but we’re also playing off the energy that the audience is giving us, too. So if the audience is really kind of a part of the performance, I really feel like that adds another element to it.
Lewin: And Calidore violist Jeremy Berry loves that chamber music is so versatile.
Jeremy: We can play in a barn, we can play in a church. We can play in a living room. We can we can play in a big orchestral hall – but each one of those experiences brings a totally different thing to it. And it’s fun to be able to do all that.
Lewin: The Calidore String Quartet got its start in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. The Gryphon Trio was formed in 1993 by three faculty members at the University of Toronto. Both ensembles have spent thousands of hours rehearsing and fine-tuning themselves as musical units, and both ensembles were thrilled to be back at Tippet Rise. As Gryphon Trio violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon put it:
MUSIC: GRYPHON: Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97
Annalee: When you have a space like this, and you have such a wonderful piano and wonderful audience, the things that you can hear – I mean, every time you play this music that we’ve played a lot, it’s monumental, it’s famous. But there’s always something fresh. There’s always something that we hear, that we didn’t hear before, but we hear it differently.
Lewin: String players bring their own instruments with them wherever they perform. But Gryphon Trio pianist Jamie Parker quotes a colleague who says:
Jamie: For us pianists, every night’s a blind date. So you show up. It’s like, “Oh, nice to meet you. Oh, it’s going to be like that, is it?” You just don’t know. And so, as a pianist, you have to be adaptable, or super high maintenance. And I’ve chosen the former. But here – I mean, this is a luxury beyond any pianist’s fantasy.
Lewin: Because at Tippet Rise, pianists have five extraordinary Steinways to choose from when they perform in the Olivier Music Barn. The 2022 Gryphon Trio program included Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat, nicknamed “Archduke” for Beethoven’s pianist patron Archduke Rudolph. Having Beethoven on the program led to the piano Jamie Parker chose.
Jamie: Say with Bach, Mozart, Schubert, you just can’t have anything harsh. That’s just not going to work. With Haydn, you can get a little bit harder for me. And with Beethoven you can get violent, and just horrible because, you know, he’s the first composer that accesses the inner caveman. I mean, really the totality of the human experience. Not to say that, you know, just run around, go banging away. But but there are few moments where the sound quality – beauty is not the prime directive at that point.
Lewin: After decades of performing together, chamber music ensembles have an easy camaraderie, and lots of tales to tell. Halls and pianos are not the only unknown elements the Gryphon Trio has faced on tour. At times, all three musicians have been at the mercy of a page turner, who is often a well-meaning local volunteer. When concert presenters look for a page turner, they don’t always realize that that person has to be very good at reading music on the fly. It’s not a job for a beginner, so you can hear Jamie Parker rolling his eyes…
Jamie: I usually get lots of tour stories of complete idiot page turners. You know, you’ll get somebody who’s “Well, you know, Billy’s reading at the grade two level now…” Grade two!
Lewin: Gryphon Trio cellist Roman Borys recalls one page turner who seared herself into the group’s collective memory.
MUSIC: GRYPHON: Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97 “Archduke”
Roman: You know, she didn’t say she was at the grade two level, but … she played a little piano, and she was very generous to be there.
Lewin: Usually, the turner stands up and reaches for the upper right-hand corner of the music once the pianist has reached that page, and the pianist will nod when it’s time to turn. Gryphon pianist Jamie Parker takes up the tale …
Jamie: We were playing something – it was like very slow, very slow and dreamy…
MUSIC: GRYPHON: Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97
Jamie: …and then it just started to get a little faster. So she panics and stands up. But I’m on the left page still. So so now, you know, you can’t do anything that could be legally construed as a nod, you know. So you have to kind of play like Commander Data. But but she feels that she’s got to let me know. So she says, “I’m lost. So I’m going to wait for you to nod, okay?” "You’re not allowed to talk to me!” Complete disaster!
Lewin: Roman Borys:
Roman: It was it was one of those moments where clearly the audience could hear what she just said – very, very clearly! And then they could see, you know – there I am facing the audience. I’m hearing this. I mean, where do I turn?
Lewin: These days, page turners are being replaced by modern technology.
Jeff: We’re all on iPads now.
Lewin: That’s Jeff Myers of the Calidore String Quartet. If you’re wondering how you can change pages on an iPad when you’re using both hands to play the violin, cello, or piano, the musicians tell all.
Jamie: Well, we’ve got we’ve got these little Bluetooth pedals that we use.
Roman: No, no, no, no, no – mental telepathy.
Jeff: We all have pedals that we place on the floor. They’re connected via Bluetooth. And as long as they’re connected – you’ve done all your sacrifices and everything…
Lewin: According to Gryphon Trio pianist Jamie Parker, turning pages with a pedal has also affected his playing:
Jamie: I don’t use soft pedal so much anymore because my left foot is now assigned to just that.
Lewin: He also remembers a time when a human page turner came to the rescue.
Jamie: There was a Bluetooth betrayal. I’d taken my iPad offstage to charge it at intermission. And then it lost the Bluetooth connection. And then when I came back, it showed the connection, but the pedal wasn’t working and it was just it’s just like (gasp, gasp). And and we’re we’re on live radio…. (gasp) And so, I just started talking, giving the intro to the piece, and they sort of futzed around with it, and nothing worked. And I always have my hard copies with me because I’m not an idiot. And luckily, there was a pianist who could turn pages for me. And so that’s what had to happen.
Lewin: Jeff Myers of the Calidore Quartet agrees that technology can be iffy:
Jeff: I had some horror stories where my second page just showed up blank. And then I’ve turned too many pages. But it’s such a resource to be able to carry all of your scores just on the little device.
MUSIC: CALIDORE: Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat (1st mvt.)
Lewin: The Calidore program at Tippet Rise in September 2022 included the String Quartet #3 by Johannes Brahms. Jeff Myers says Brahms wrote very different chamber music from other composers.
Jeff: Just as Mozart always had opera in his ear, I feel like Brahms always had the symphony in his ear. And this piece is no different. Especially the inner voices have a tremendous number of double stops to kind of flesh out the texture. Normally we’re just so concerned about playing, you know, our one melodic note, but to fill out the texture, Brahms often requires two notes, so playing two strings at once, with different fingers down.
Lewin: Ryan Meehan, the Calidore’s other violinist, chimes in…
Ryan: I think Brahms was – he must have been so obsessed with textures that he always wanted more than he had to work with. So if he was writing a trio, it’s like he’s writing for five people. If he’s writing a quartet, it’s like he’s writing for six, he’s writing for a sextet, etc., etc. And I always, as a string player, grew up thinking like, oh, this music at times is unidiomatic, doesn’t feel quite right on the instrument because he was a pianist. And then I talk to any pianist and they’re like, Oh, no, it’s even worse for us.
Lewin: Jeff Myers says Brahms’s Third String Quartet is a big departure from his previous two:
Jeff: The first two quartets, there’s this kind of like storm that is over, both of them, where this one is much more optimistic and just kind of leaves you with a smile on your face.
Lewin: Brahms dedicated his Third Quartet to a cellist friend – and then wrote to him, saying, “There’s no cello solo in it, but there’s such a great viola solo, you might think about switching instruments.”
MUSIC: CALIDORE: Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat (3rd mvt.)
Lewin: Jeremy Berry, the Calidore violist, says this quartet requires him to shift mindset in midstream.
Jeremy: My part is extremely active in the first half of the piece, but not so much in the forefront. And then all of a sudden, from the beginning of the third movement, it’s just like he hits a switch and you kind of have to go into concerto mode.
Lewin: Jeff Myers, the Calidore’s first fiddle, describes how, during the solo, Brahms makes all the other quartet members play second fiddle to the viola.
Jeff: He has the three of us mute our instruments while keeping the viola without mute so that it really is present and kind of away from the rest of the quartet as far as the texture is concerned.
Lewin: Jeremy Berry, the violist, explains:
Jeremy: The viola has a very mellow color, potentially veiled – it’s a very dark sound. So to to darken all of the other instruments kind of magnifies that effect on the whole group. It’s just a really interesting and unique timbre.
Lewin: Jeff Myers also notes that the final movement of the quartet – a theme, with a set of variations – goes way beyond embellishing a simple melody.
MUSIC: CALIDORE: Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 (4th mvt.)
Jeff: It’s not just a theme and variation thing – Brahms actually brings back the other movements of the quartet. We kind of get like a recap of the whole quartet at the end of the theme variation movment.
Lewin: All the innovative music by Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms was “new music” when they wrote it – and the Calidore and Gryphon musicians want to make sure that there’s a constant supply of “new music” for them to play. As a Canadian ensemble, the Gryphon Trio has commissioned a lot of work by Canadian composers, including Sri Lankan-born Dinuk Wijeratne. Jamie Parker explains this priority for the Gryphon Trio:
MUSIC: GRYPHON: Dinuk Wijeratne: Love Triangle
Jamie: We’ve been involved with commissioning since the mid-90s, so pretty early on in our, you know, in our formation. It’s just partly a desire to be with people speaking the language of today. I think it’s just a part of keeping things vital. And I think in presenting newer music with more traditional music, it is a way of just helping everybody expand their ears a little bit.
Lewin: Calidore Quartet violinist Ryan Meehan agrees.
Ryan: The repertoire is really vast already, but it is important to have music that reflects the sentiment of our time, in some cases of our generation.
Lewin: And Gryphon Trio cellist Roman Borys adds:
MUSIC: CALIDORE: Wynton Marsalis: At the Octoroon Balls
Roman: Sometimes for for very young audiences – kids! – I mean for them, particularly for those that haven’t had much exposure to classical music, there’s something about the energy in a contemporary piece, very often, that actually they find more familiar than the Haydn. Somebody living today, absorbing the energy of today, transforming it into their language – kids get that! So do all sorts of other audiences. And I think that there’s a portal there. New music presents an opportunity to bring people towards the old music.
MUSIC: GRYPHON: Valentin Silvestrov: Fugitive Visions of Mozart
Lewin: Another reason to commission new work:
Roman: To support the composers. I mean, it’s really quite odd, if you consider that in Haydn and Beethoven’s time, the composers were performers. And increasingly, there are more people who might start out as as players that actually discover that they’re composers … for us to be as close as we can to composers, as many different composers, ones that stretch us in different directions, sometimes frustrate us, sometimes give us the new experiences, and joy, and new ways of, playing together.
Lewin: Gryphon Trio violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon:
Annalee: We’re about to celebrate our 30th anniversary. I think we’ve commissioned 80 to 100 works. But the reality is, not all of them will have long legs.
Lewin: To which Gryphon Trio pianist Jamie Parker can’t resist joking:
Jamie: It does bring up the point that every now and then I want to have a world derniere. Like a piece is so bad, this is the worst, the last time anyone’s going to have to play it or hear it, all extant copies will be burned, all PDFs destroyed. But I’m not getting a lot of traction from the new music community on this. (laugh)
Lewin: Just to confirm – he hasn’t found that piece yet. Calidore Quartet violinist Jeff Myers finds an interesting difference between working on new music and the standard repertoire.
MUSIC: CALIDORE: Wynton Marsalis: At the Octoroon Balls
Jeff: With all of these pieces that have been performed for hundreds of years, at this point, there’s kind of a performance practice and a performance standard that has been passed down and you’re held to. And with the new music, there’s no no precedent. So you are creating all of that, and there’s no wrong answer.
Lewin: For Estelle Choi, cellist of the Calidore Quartet…
Estelle: It’s also an exploration of a composer’s language. With newer music, sometimes we have that luxury where we can go back and look at a composer’s previous works to sort of decipher. Other times we can work directly with these composers who can explain to us and kind of guide us through it.
Lewin: At the Octoroon Balls, by Wynton Marsalis, reflects the composer’s childhood in New Orleans. Calidore violinist Jeff Myers especially loves being able to discuss music with the people who wrote it.
Jeff: We spend so much time trying to interpret and decipher these things that have been around for hundreds of years. And when we play a piece of a living composer and we ask them, well, you know, we were thinking of trying it this way, they’re like, absolutely. You know, like they’re so encouraging of our, you know, new ideas that all these other composers that are no longer with us probably would also be as encouraging. So that’s also – it breathes new life into the old stuff as well.
MUSIC: CALIDORE: Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 (4th mvt.)
Lewin: For Ryan Meehan, the other Calidore violinist:
Ryan: That’s the cool thing about a string quartet. It can be a vehicle for so many different types of music. And I think that’s why today string quartet and chamber music in general is enjoying increasing interest amongst audiences and the public – because they hear it in all different settings.
Lewin: Especially one as warm and welcoming as the Olivier Music Barn at Tippet Rise. Thanks to Jeff Myers, Ryan Meehan, Jeremy Berry, and Estelle Choi of the Calidore Quartet, and Annalee Patipatanakoon, Roman Borys, and Jamie Parker of the Gryphon Trio for their insights – and their music. I’m Naomi Lewin.