Area arts council, church cultural committee and other groups promote Thessaloniki’s history
By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. –
Other than college degrees, what do an anthropologist, a physicist, and a pharmacologist have in common?
A love for the Hellenic tradition that goes beyond the geopolitical boundaries of the Greek Republic.
It was this love of their Hellenic heritage that led Georgia Semertzidis, her husband Yannis, Prof. Stella Tsirka (of the State University of New York – SUNY – at Stony Brook) and a small group of like-minded Hellenes, members of the Cultural Connections Committee of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption community in Port Jefferson, Long Island, to join cultural forces with the Greater Port Jefferson-North Brookhaven Arts Council (GPJAC), connected by church and arts council board member Mary Samios, and bring Savina Yannatou and the Primavera en Salonico group of musicians to SUNY’s Wang Center on January 11.
With the GPJAC’s greatly appreciated promotional assistance, the Cultural Connections Committee succeeded in assembling people of many nationalities and interests in an acoustically excellent auditorium.
“Part of our mission is to foster programming that is inclusive of all groups, ethnicities, races and religions, to bring the community together through the arts,” said Allan Varela, GPJAC executive director. “The Savina Yannatou concert was a natural fit for us to fulfill our mission and work with a great group of people.”
Varela’s connections with New York and Long Island media and the area arts community helped get the concert the publicity it needed.
“Alan’s wonderful at putting things together,” said Cultural Connections Committee member Georgia Semertzidis. “He got us listings and articles in area newspapers, including a cover story in the Arts and Leisure section of the area’s Times-Herald newspaper. “He also taught us a few things about advertising in the local media,” she added.
The Cultural Connections Committee is barely two years old and has already held two concerts, the last one, “From Erotokritos to Axion Esti,” a program of Grigoris Maninakis which exposed the works of many prize-winning Greek poets through the music of world-renowned Greek composers.
“We have a beautiful new Byzantine Church; we are here,” Georgia said, “but people don’t know who we – the Greeks of today – are. We came together as a group because we wanted to let people know that we’re here beyond antiquity, that we exist beyond the Parthenon as a vibrant cultural unit.”
While the performance of Savina Yannatou and Primavera en Salonica, which comprises the Mediterranean folk traditions of peoples from many regions of the Mediterranean and includes Spanish, Sephardic, Albanian, Palestinian, Cypriot, Bulgarian, Arab, Italian and Greek music, wasn’t “Greek enough” for some of those attending the concert, Georgia believes the committee was justified in its selection.
“Some of the feedback we received from the concert was that it wasn’t promoting Greek culture; but ultimately, it was. There was a Greek singer, and all the musicians were Greek. Their appearance in America – they also performed at an international music event in Manhattan during this trip – was sponsored by the Greek Ministry of Culture. If they were Greek enough for the cultural ministry, why weren’t they Greek enough for us?
“Hellenism is the dissemination of culture beyond state boundaries,” Georgia explained.
“We don’t live in isolation just to share Greek songs. We are Greek within a greater community,” she said.
“The performers took the traditional songs of the Mediterranean and tied them to Thessaloniki. So many different kinds of people went through that city, so many cultures, so many musical traditions. The song ‘Kadifes (Marigolds)’ was from Thessaloniki. It was sung in Greek, Sephardic, Latino and Turkish. We shouldn’t always separate ourselves.
“Who would come to hear a lecture only on Thessaloniki? The music and the exhibit showed who we are, and we are passing that along to the broader American community,” adding that even the choice of venue helped the event’s mission.
“Some asked why we didn’t hold it in the church’s cultural center. To reflect the sophistication of the performance and draw outsiders, we had to hold the event in a sophisticated environment. The Wang Center made a terrific impression,” she said.
Georgia’s husband, Yannis, a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratories, described how the dissemination of Greek culture that night had already begun to have an effect on the community:
“Two days ago, I ran into a Jewish friend at work and he told me how he was touched by the Palestinian wedding song. ‘They are like us,’ he said, adding how he loved the concert. He thanked me, and asked when our next event would be.
“Our next event will be about Greece, perhaps about Socrates, and we will be able to draw the non-Greeks attending this event to bring our culture to them and communicate with them on a different level. Young kids liked it too. So now you have young kids saying, ‘this is something Greek that I like.'”
Alan Varela described the audience as consisting of Greeks (50%), arts council-affiliated people (30%) and “others, John Q citizens (20%)”. He explained the importance of the concert in the broader sense of preserving European folk culture.
“Because we live in an era of an omnipresent pop culture, it’s worthwhile and beneficial to show off those musical genres, films, plays, or poetry readings, especially traditional folk music. Without people like Savina, these traditions have the opportunity to die off, though they probably won’t die off in Europe. Exposing people to this kind of history is beneficial.”
Prof. Stella Tsirka, a Cultural Connections Committee member who teaches Greek culture at Assumption’s Greek School, is a native of Thessaloniki and assembled visual materials into an exhibit reflecting the historical and demographic evolution of Thessaloniki in the lobby outside the theater. She shared her perspective on the purpose of the event.
“The idea was to promote the community and make it more known to the people in the area, to showcase an important part of Greece that, unlike Athens and the Greek islands, is usually neglected,” she said.
Inspired by Savina Yannatou’s performance at the Onassis Cultural Center last year, the Cultural Connections Committee began discussions about a concert with the international ambassador of Mediterranean music last June. Though the fee for the group’s performance was initially out of reach, continuing negotiations created a more achievable fundraising goal.
The committee’s initial funding source had been created last year, when they gathered together the church community’s children to learn the St. Basil’s Day “Kalanta” and, in a caravan of five or six cars, went to neighborhood homes to sing them for donations.
“We collected $1,000 over a weekend,” Georgia said.
While some of the monies from Kalanta-singing a year ago were donated to St. Basil’s Academy, others were used to fund the committee’s work.
Sponsorships from Damianos Realty, J & R’s Steak House and the Greek School of St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church in Greenlawn provided additional funds for the monetary base from which the committee could launch the ticket-selling campaign.
Once begun, with extra promotional assistance from students at Stony Brook – who distributed flyers and posters wherever they could on campus, Greek Orthodox churches in Southampton, Blue Point, Babylon, and Hicksville, area Greek-American media, and a widespread e-mail campaign resulted in a nearly sold-out concert, with more than two hundred tickets sold. But the most amazing aspect of the process was that the majority of those tickets were sold during the holiday-intensive months of November and December.
“Among those who came to the concert were people from Stanford, Conn., including AHEPA members, university people, and members of area synagogues. There was even a review of the event in an area Jewish newsletter,” Georgia pointed out, while her husband noted that the event’s success came out of the efforts of a small group of people.
“You don’t need many people to do great things,” he said. ” In order for a group effort to work, you have to be democratic but also work like a family. Each of us has expertise in something, but no one is trying to show off. We all push each other forward.”
“You also don’t need a huge amount of money. If you give people quality, they’ll give you money because they’ll trust you,” he added, though his wife noted that the group “would love to do something with another church; this is not something that can be supported by one community in the long-term.”