In the midst of Messiahs, Nutcrackers and December holiday extravaganzas of all kinds, it is a refreshing musical oasis to come upon a secular “classic” performance. It is even more exciting when one is introduced to a group who breathes life into standard repertoire and also champions new compositions. Such is the Gryphon Trio, a Toronto-based piano trio who has been touring internationally since 1993. Named after the mythical half-eagle, half-lion that is reputed to be the guardian of treasures, the ensemble consists of violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys and pianist Jamie Parker. This performance was the final presentation of 2007 by the Chamber Arts Society, a component of Duke Performances.

It has become common in concert programming that if there is to be a new unknown work played (especially if, heaven forbid, it is a composition by a living composer) then it is usually placed first on the program, and invariably prior to intermission. In exchange for taking your medicine early on, you are rewarded with a comforting chestnut after being held musical hostage. This scenario did not apply to the United States premiere of Figments of Mozart (title renamed from what had appeared in the program) by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Commissioned by and dedicated to the Gryphon Trio, this work is little more than a year old. Cellist Borys gave an informative and evocative introduction describing, among other things, visits with the composer. This is a lovely, well-crafted composition that delightfully retains many of Mozart’s themes while coloring them with a contemporary edge that defies classification. It is primarily a sedate and quiet work, requiring an interpretive approach that separates the men/women from the boys/girls. Focus and beauty of tone, rhythmic drive, even in slow tempos, and an immersion in the long line were immediately evident in this trio’s playing. Like a music box gone slightly askew, this was wonderfully accessible yet spicy music — nothing to fear in this modern opener.

It was the pianist Parker’s turn to speak about the music as he introduced Johannes Brahms’ Trio No. 3 in C minor. This work was a nice contrast to the Silvestrov, as the opening is as “in your face” as music can get. It also functions as an alarm clock for those who may have dozed off. This work is a microcosm and perhaps a summation of all the facets of Brahms’ style. Sections of loud, big-chord Romantic excess, wispy rhythmical complexities, Hungarian dances and folk music — you’ve got it all right here. The Gryphon’s easily transcended the technical and physical and got right to the heart and character of each movement. Especially beautiful was an extended duo between the violin and cello sans piano in the Andante grazioso movement — perhaps a hint of what was to come in the following year’s (1887) Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor.

In the past five years of attending piano trio recitals, either as critic or civilian, I have heard Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major no less than six times. There is good reason for the heavy rotation of this grand work, and, in a way, its very popularity can make it difficult to perform effectively — everyone knows it so well. From the first phrase of the familiar opening, the Gryphon Trio grabbed you by the lapels and insisted that you listen and take notice of their concept of Schubert’s masterpiece. This is the essence of seasoned and committed artists: the ability to make the overly familiar new, exciting and revelatory. You could feel the rapport and psychic connection between musicians and audience. 

A tremendous encore sealed the deal, if there ever was any doubt left. “Autumn Tango” by the recently deceased Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla, is one of those sinewy, sensuous, almost X-rated slow tangos that transports you to a tropical beach. An elegant, passionate extended cello solo put Borys in the spotlight, and his powerful full-bodied tone filled the hall.  

Contrast and variety is the spice of a musical performance and the Gryphon Trio showed their mastery of these wonderful recipes. From introverted, whispering conversations to testosterone-filled, raucous screams, these musicians were always focused, in the moment and technically impeccable. Keep ’em coming, Canada.