New York.- By Vicki J. Yiannias
Chamber music is gaining large audiences in Greece and The New Hellenic Quartet, whose repertoire has a core of modern Greek composers, is the foremost chamber ensemble in the country.
But The New Hellenic Quartet — Georgios Demertzis violin, Dimitris Chandrakis, violin, Chara Sira, viola, and Apostolos Chandrakis, cello – not only received the Distinguished Prize for Music from the Union of Greek Critics for Music and Drama in 2001, playing regularly in Athens, Thessaloniki and Nafplion, but has an international reputation, as well, having performed in such worldwide venues as the Beethoven Festwochen in Bonn in 2003, the Vaughn Williams Festival in London and festivals in Denmark, Florence, and Belgrade. In 2002-3 they toured China, the United States, and Brazil, and took part in the official Greek participation in the 400th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, October 11-12, The New Hellenic Quartet performed in the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, an increasingly important venue for world-class performances in the arts, giving New Yorkers a rare overview of modern Greek music. The full-house audience, were captivated, with many hearing tonal music by four modern Greek composers for the first time. The program included works by Dimitris Mitropoulos, Yorgos Sicilianos, Nikos Skalkottas, and a composition from the classical period of Mikis Theodorakis’ youth that is unlike his well-known songs.
On the first night the Quartet performed Danse des Faunes, Scherzo Fantastique (1915), by Dimitris Mitropoulos, Quartet No. 1 Opus 8 (1955), by Yorgos Sicilianos, and for a more familiar sound, rounded off the concert with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet in F Minor Opus 95 No. 11. The familiarity principle also held true for the last piece on the Quartet’s October 12 program, Maurice Ravel’s Quartet following Nikos Skalkottas’ Ten Sketches for String Quartet and Mikis Theoodorakis’ To Kimitirion (1945).
Dimitris Chandrakis talked with the Greek News about the fascinating Dimitris Mitropoulos (1896-1950), who created a sensation as a conductor in the United States in the 1940’s. When Mitropoulos was just nineteen years old, in 1915, he conducted for the first time, the orchestra at the Athens Conservatory, replacing his teacher Armand Marsik, and presenting his own composition “Taphi” and other works. “We played Mitropoulos, first of all, because he was very important for Greek composition and secondly, because he lived and worked here and was very well-known, particularly in New York. Mitropoulos was not well known as a composer, but as a conductor. His work was tonal . . . he was the first that presented “modernismos” to the Greeks although he was not so well accepted by the Greek audience in those times . . . which may be why he stopped composing. The piece we played, “Danse des Faunes”, is very descriptive. It is the very alive, energetic dance of the fauns, who eventually fall down exhausted. It is a very tonal piece.”
When asked about Yorgos Sicilianos (the Quartet has recorded two volumes of his chamber works), whose work is also tonal, Chandrakis said, “Sicilianos was well-known to Mitropoulos, who invited him to the United States where his first symphony was played. We knew him well . . . unfortunately he died this past spring, at the age of 85. He was one of the most representative composers of the new era — the second half of the twentieth century. He wrote five quartets. When he died, it was just before the performance of his last work, “Timbres” for string quartet piano and contrabass — dedicated to the New Hellenic Quartet — was performed for the first time.”
The Greek News asked Mr. Chandrakis about the work of Iannis Xenakis, one of the most radical composers of the 20th century, who, articulating the concept that art and science are unified, pioneered the creation of music working with computers and mathematical formulas to music in the 1960’s. “My opinion is that he’s an experimentalist in some aspects of his music. When you look at the time they were written, in many ways they are wonderful, because he answered the question of ‘what should we do next that would be different’. But what will endure from this, I don’t know. What I know is that he, himself, started to change toward the end of his life. His string quartets are like rediscovering music from the beginning. He started to write completely differently, very traditionally. . . it is modern, but the sounds are so clear . . . it’s like discovering how to put notes together.”
Mr. Chandrakis mentioned that the Quartet is not only like a family but is one in reality: his brother, Apostolos Chandrakis is married to Chara Siris, the violist. Apostolos and Chara also have other jobs; he teaches at the University of Thessaloniki and she plays in the Thessaloniki Symphony Orchestra.
Highlights of the repertoire of The New Hellenic Quartets include the performance and recording of sixteen modern Greek quartets in 1996 for the League of Greek composers (Agora Musica), the performance in the Athens Megaron of the complete string quartets of Yorgos Sicilianos and Dimitri Dragatakis, and the performance of Skalkottas’ quartets in London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, and Stockholm under the auspices of the Foundation for Greek Culture.