For 25 years Annalee Patipatanakoon has been the violinist in the Gryphon Trio, the ensemble she founded with her partner in life Roman Borys (cello) and Jamie Parker (piano). She also teaches at the University of Toronto and she is an artistic adviser to the Ottawa Chamberfest. One thing the Gryphons all care about is the commissioning of new work and the broadening of the contemporary repertoire. One of their most ambitious projects is Scar Tissue which features music by Jeffrey Ryan, words by the Giller winner Michael Redhill and the vocal ensemble Nordic Voices. It will debut Feb. 1 at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. Before the show Patipatanakoon answered some questions from ARTSFILE.
Q. When did your interest in music begin?
A. Apparently as a child I would sing all of the time. My mother, from her early days living on a farm in northern Saskatchewan, was always different from the others. She was the one who had the desire to play an instrument and pursue all sorts of other interesting paths. She was the one that signed me up for violin lessons.
I started to play at age three, so I cannot really say I had an interest at that age. My mother wanted my younger sisters and me have to have a musical education so we all started the violin in the Suzuki program. My siblings switched to cello and voice. Around six or seven I became aware that I was progressing quite quickly. At 11, I went to my first serious music camp, Meadowmount (in New York State, started by Ivan Galamian), for eight weeks. I met some of my closest musical friends there. They were all a bit older and I wanted to be like them.
I was in Suzuki in Calgary until age seven and then switched to one of my most important mentors, Dr. Lise Elson, until 16. She was on faculty at the University of Calgary. From age seven to 10, she would see me three times a week. Eventually the program at the Mount Royal Conservatory was launched and Dr. Elson taught there. I was enrolled in their Young Artists Program. Then it was off to the Curtis Institute of Music from 1982 to 1985 and finally Indiana University from 1985 to 1989.
Q. Were you thinking about a solo career?
Solo was definitely my main focus, but chamber music was always a part of my development and eventually became my priority. In Calgary, Dr. Elson used to bring a few students together every Saturday and we would work on some Haydn or Mozart quartet. One of us would have to play the viola and that is when I first started learning the alto clef. My first string quartet while studying at Meadowment (in addition to the private lessons) was with Joshua Bell. I played the viola and our coach was Josef Gingold.) While studying at summer master classes in Banff, I met Roman Borys and Jamie Parker. Roman and I were heading off to Indiana and we wanted to play in a chamber group together. We approached Menahem Pressler about working with him and at that time he was only teaching solo pianists. He did have a doctoral student who wanted to complete her degree with a specialty in chamber music. Pressler put us together and for three glorious years we had weekly coaching with the founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio.
Q. You are an active teacher, Why?
A. Like most students fresh out of school, one way to make some money (in addition to freelance work and concerts) is to start teaching. Initially, I had no experience and it was a steep learning curve. Teaching others forces you to continue learning about yourself to help others. As artists one never stops learning. I receive just as much as I pass along. I was first given an opportunity to teach at the Royal Conservatory of Music and eventually moved to U of T in 2000 as a sessional teacher and eventually Assistant (and now Associate) Professor in 2008.
Q. This is such a demanding life. Does it help to be married to another musician who is also in the same group as you?
A. Being married to a member of the same group was just how it worked out. We try to keep our personal life out of the job. So, does it help to be married — I would have to answer yes (though you would have to ask Jamie how he feels about that. As he puts it ‘I sit in the middle!’). Given our schedule I would hate to be apart from my partner for the amount of time we are either on the road or busy with projects. There is enough variety in the work we do within and outside of the trio that unless we are rehearsing or playing, we don’t see each other as much as people would think.
Q. When were the Gryphons formed?
A. The trio Roman and I started with one of Pressler’s students continued for seven years. After that ended, Roman and I still very much wanted to pursue chamber music and we started searching for a new pianist. We knew Jamie and it was timely that a CBC documentary on Jamie was on TV one Sunday. We were reminded that he was finishing up his doctoral studies at Juilliard and thought he might be interested to join us for a few concerts. It started in March 1993 and hasn’t stopped since.
Q. The Gryphons are committed to new work and new Canadian work in particular. Why?
A. It has been on my to-do list to do a proper count of all of the commissions we have caused to be created or were part of since the beginning. In my studio at U of T there are shelves filled with all of the compositions (or piles waiting to be shelved) of all of our commissions. We know that there are at least 85. These shelves also include (but not counted in our official total commissioning list) all of the mini-compositions (three to seven minutes) from our student composition project at the Claude Watson School for the Arts at Earl Haig Collegiate in North York. This initiative began in 1998 (maybe earlier) and continues to this day. With 25 to 30 students in this class producing a short trio every year — well you can do the math of how many short works have been created for us.
Q. What is it like to play a completely new piece of music?
A. Fantastic. Stressful, sometimes confusing, challenging (both physically and mentally at times) — it’s rewarding (especially) when a composer has your group’s character, strengths, expression and appreciation of the audiences we want to present their music to in mind, and that we can have a dialogue about the composer’s intentions.
Q. Did you know Jeffrey Ryan‘s work before Scar Tissue?
A. Roman and I first worked with Jeff Ryan when we were asked to play his string quartet, Quantum Mechanics for a concert as part of the Soundstreams series in Toronto. I recorded Bellatrix (the solo violin version) for Jeff. He wrote his triple concerto Equilateral for the Gryphon Trio and the Vancouver Symphony (on Naxos). Jeff also arranged Elemental (originally written for violin and percussion) for the trio. In recent years Jeff has written song cycles and orchestral pieces with vocal components so we knew that he enjoyed the challenge of working with words.
For a number of years Roman had been in discussions with an American scientist and friend Glenn Prestwich. Glenn loves to sing and also loves contemporary music. One of his main areas of research is scar tissue and he’s developed compounds that eliminate it in humans and animals. He and a friend started the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club a number of years ago in order to encourage composers to use scientific process as inspiration. We were looking for a composer who might be interested.
It all came together when Roman and I were driving from Calgary to do some skiing near Banff. Roman thought of exploring the possibility of getting Jeff involved in the Sounds of Science venture and called him. He was interested. Who would write the words? Why not approach friend Michael Redhill? (Michael Redhill and Roman have known each other since before university. Michael wrote a story years ago that composer Omar Daniel set to music for the trio.) Before long all the required elements for a new work for six voices and trio, on a scientific theme, with words by Michael Redhill, fell in place.
The project was produced in partnership with Chamber Factory, a grant from the Canada Council and private funding from the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club and a friend, Joyce Miller. We will be performing the piece in the U.S. and Norway next year. Nordic Voices are now planning to invite a major Norwegian composer and writer to create a second work that brings us all together in another way.
Q. How did the connection with Nordic Voices happen?
A. We were encouraged by our American manager to commission a new work for smaller vocal ensemble and trio. Roman considered various international groups and by hook and crook made his way to the Nordic Voices. We had the idea that we would combine our repertoires — they do early music and contemporary, we do core Classical and contemporary. It was a good mix.
Q. You rehearsed this piece in Norway. What was that like?
A. This was our first trip to Norway and it was our first time meeting the Nordic Voices. Loved it all. About two years ago Oslo decided to make its downtown core car-free (except for taxi/bus and delivery). You can walk everywhere. The facilities are all well conceived, well built and beautiful, and we could not have asked for a better rehearsal and performance venue to workshop the piece. We arrived in the evening and rehearsed all day so if I said it was dark most of the time when we had a chance to walk around, you will understand.
It can be a challenge for nine people to perform together without a conductor. We all so appreciated having the workshop with Jeff present. We had time to try things and Jeff could then decide to make changes as needed.
Q. Have you worked with voices before in such a work?
A. The trio has commissioned Christos Hatzis, Larysa Kuzmenko and Eric Robertson to create works for larger choirs and trio and we love the blend. We’ve also worked with solo voices on Hatzis’ (opera) Constantinople. That eventually led to less traditional projects and CDs with Patricia O’Callaghan called Broken Hearts and Madmen and Moonshine Ballads and Other Charms. We’ve also commissioned and performed transcriptions of vocal work for bass baritone and have worked a lot with Robert Pomakov. Analekta has just released our latest CD called Immortal Beloved which is our ode to Beethoven. It features two collaborations with Canadian baritone David Pike — Beethoven’s famous song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte (piano and voice) and James Wright’s Letters to the Immortal Beloved (voice and piano trio settings of letters found next to his bed) together with Beethoven’s Archduke Trio which he dedicated to his great friend and benefactor Archduke Rudolf. All that to say that we’ve worked with singers quite a lot over the years.
Chamberfest presents the Gryphon Trio with Nordic Voices
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: chamberfest.com