New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
A chance meeting, in 1970, in Sydney, Australiaʼs airport when she unexpectedly provided on-the-spot language translation for Mikis Theodorakis, was a defining moment in the life and times of Gail Holst-Warhaft. It was the beginning of her life-long devotion to the study of this artistic colossus of twentieth-century Greece whose poignant and exuberant music surpasses all ethnic boundaries.
In Ritsos and Theodorakis: Why Epitaphios Matters, her introduction to the musical evening titled Epitaphios”, The Poetry of Yannis Ritsos and the Music of Mikis Theodorakis, on October 16 at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, Professor Holst-Warhaft, began by saying, “Let me start with a large claim, one I hope to justify in the course of this presentation. Mikis Theodorakisʼs setting of Yiannis Ritsosʼs Epitaphios, and the recording of it made by Grigoris Bithikotsis and Hiotis was perhaps one of the most important works produced by any artist in 20th century Greece. Beyond its social and political importance, its artistic importance cannot be exaggerated.” Holst-Warhaftʼs English translations of Ritsos, which were used for this performance, capture the poetic styles and periods of the songs.
Fifty years ago Mikis Theodorakis set Yiannis Ritsos’s poem Epitaphios to music, transforming his own life and Greek popular music forever. The history of Epitaphios, both as a poem and as a song cycle, and of its reception by various sectors of the Greek population, reflects so much of modern Greece’s postwar history that it deserves a chapter in any textbook on the period.
Ritsos was quite proud of the fact that the book was publicly burned by the regime of General Metaxas and remained on the list of banned books longer than any other text, Holst Warhaft explained. For Theodorakis, the poems of Epitaphios not only inspired a splendid cycle of songs; they also prompted him to abandon a burgeoning career as a classical composer in Europe and return to immerse himself in the cultural and political life of Greece. For most Greeks, Grigoris Bithikotsis’s recording of Epitaphios, which mingled elements of the popular rembetika music with sophisticated, politically charged poetry, marked the beginning of an exciting new movement that broke down the barrier between “high” and “low” culture.
“It was lovely to see so many older people there who remembered the original recording and had the same strong reaction to the music as I did”, the scholar, who is Director of the Mediterranean Studies Initiative Institute for European Studies at Cornell University later told The Greek News.
Audience reaction was not accidental. Lyric soprano Lina Orfanos (who has had Theodorakis as a coach) transmits her own feelings to the audience. “I am extremely moved by his melodies and compositions. Even if you don’t understand Greek you can understand his music. Music is by its nature about emotions,” she told The Greek News.
Ms. Orfanos and The Poetica Ensemble, performed the 8-song cycle.
The Poetica Ensemble, comprised of Spiros Exaras, guitar and musical direction; Sophia Anastasia, flute; Mathias Kunzli, percussion; Martin Neron, piano; Kostas Psarros, bouzouki, presented an interlude of the apocalyptically beautiful songs of “Epitaphios” that was so diverting and so outside the dayʼs ordinary occurrences that the good fortune of having the Onassis Center in the middle of New York City, a cultural oasis, must have been in the minds of all those attending the concert.
Theodorakis was a sound that she grew up with, says Orfanos, answering the question of when she first felt the emotional pull of his music. ”I grew up in a home that frequently played the compositions of Mikis Theodorakis. He was a favorite in our house. That’s the emotional pull as it began. But as I became a trained singer and learned about all kinds of classical music I came to appreciate his work even more….it is both beautiful and meaningful. Greece has many, many great composers but he is probably the most unique and creative, although that is always a subjective think to say.”
Does her interpretation of Theodorakis, who has spoken of her “interpretive perfection” evolve? “Well yes, it does change over time. For example, I have always sung Theodorakis’ Mauthausen songs but as I get older and better understand the tragedy it speaks about I think I add more depth to my interpretations. I was born in the United States and trained here. My view of Greece and the music it has produced is filtered by that fact. My interpretations allow me to bridge two very different worlds. But the interesting thing is that music, particularly the music of Theodorakis, bridges worlds. It helps bring people together. I hear that aim in his music. It’s not meant to separate people or to make some people better than others.”
Theodorakisʼs greatest contribution as a composer, says Orfanos, is difficult to asses because he has made so many contributions. “First of all, it’s his music and the way he integrated high art and low art. He took Western symphonic elements and wedded them to Byzantine elements and Greek popular music and then used magnificent poetry. But the key may be that he had every intellectual and fisherman singing the same songs. No one has ever done that in the history of music. His music cut across social class and musical categories.”
Ms. Orfanos is best known in the United States as an interpreter of Greek music. In 2004 she released a live recording Greeks Songs for Romantics and Realists: The Songs of Manos Hadzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis (One Soul Studios), and has performed the music of Mikis Theodorakis numerous times in professional venues and appeared many times with the Mikis Theodorakis Orchestra.
In Summer 2009 she will present a program on F. G. Lorca with Hadzidakisʼs Blood Wedding and Theodorakisʼs Romancero Gitano by invitation at the Ionian Festival in Kerkyra, Greece. In Fall 2009 she will present Magical City by Manos Hadzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis at St. Louis University, St. Louis, MI.
In preparation: Jazz Songs for Desperate Lovers and For the Love of Sappho.