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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | 21C Music Festival: Gryphon Trio and the Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal

By Arthur Kaptainis on May 24, 2015

Grython Trio Photo: John Beebe
Grython Trio Photo: John Beebe

21C Music Festival with Gryphon Trio and the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal at Koerner Hall, Friday, May 22.

Pastiche is a pejorative word in music circles. It could nevertheless be applied with some enthusiasm to Illusions, the patchwork of 75 minutes presented by the Gryphon Trio and the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal Friday night in Koerner Hall as part of the 21st Century Music Festival.

Given its premiere last month in Montreal, this show intersperses the three movements of Charles Ives’s Piano Trio of 1911 with three new pieces. Binding the elements from behind is a black-and-white video that places much stress on rotating imagery (gears, Ferris wheels) and retro scenes from the amusement park.

Eight names were listed in the program under “artistic team” (including Gryphon cellist Roman Borys) so I shall refrain from crediting anyone in particular for the overall look. I might also fail to explain why the whole loopy business was both listenable and watchable. It helped that the Trio is one of Ives’s more approachable works and that the Gryphons managed to undo some of its density.

As for the contemporary pieces, these managed to speak their respective avant-garde dialects with some freshness. Simon Martin invested the microtonal layers of Musique d’art pour orchestre de chambre II with subtle tension and Gabriel Dharmoo’s Wanmansho was too inventive not to like. Baritone Vincent Ranallo, sporting a funky Indian jacket, whooped his way confidently through various rituals about which we could know nothing. Orchestral effects included a round of flamenco clapping.

Last and longest was Wunderkammer by the well-known eclecticist Nicole Lizée. While the program notes promised 20th-century allusions of all sorts, this potpourri (including participation by the Gryphons) seemed substantially original. Vibrant rhythms and clear textures kept interest alive. Like her colleagues, Lizée did not overwhelm us with percussion. A 21st-century reaction to a 20th-century bad habit? I would love to think so.

Quite central to the good vibrations was ECM artistic director Véronique Lacroix, a conductor of sure instincts and tensile podium style who managed to get the most out of her 13 Montreal musicians.

If Illusions seemed a little long I am inclined to blame in part the first half of the concert, which included a Royal Conservatory of Music commission from jazz guitarist Michael Occhipinti. The only remotely interesting elements of this rambling jam session were the recorded cries of a Sicilian donkey-cart driver. Much more appealing were three quixotic pieces by Don Byron as played by the Gryphon Trio and the composer, a clarinetist with a strikingly vocal style.

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Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.

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