New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
The poignant sounds of Greek composers rarely, or never before heard, in the US, Pericles Koukos, Savvas Kassotis, and Dimitris Papadimitriou, as well as musical giants Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, and Maurice Ravel set to the poetry of Euripides, Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis, Lorca, and Greek Demotic songs, sweetened the days that followed VOICES VERSES, An Evening of Poetry Set to Music, a concert performed by Irini Karaianni and Nikolaos Laaris at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York on May 11.
Sensitively accompanied by Nikolaos Laaris on piano, the beguiling, sometimes smoky, voice of Irini Karaianni, a mezzo-soprano, breathed unique life into gorgeously familiar songs from Theodorakis’ Epiphania (set to Seferis), and Hadjidakis’ Megalos Ervtikos (set to Elytis), while songs by Koukos (set to Euripides and Elytis), Kassotis, (a world premier, set to Cavafy), and Papadimitriou (set to Euripides’ Orestes) raised the emotional pitch of the evening.
Corroborating the impression that the audience was visibly moved by Kassotis’ compositions set to Cavafy’s In the Evening, So Much I Gazed, Voices, and The God Abandons Antony, Mr. Laaris told the GN, “The one thing that I can say is that whoever listens to the music of Savvas Kassotis bursts into tears, more or less.”
The affecting beauty of the compositions by Koukos, Kassotis, and Papadimitriou raised a critical question: How can the American public find out more about less well-known Greek composers? “Somebody has to promote them,” said Laaris, citing the example of Savvas Kassotis (whose music was edited by Laaris) a doctor, and not a professional musician. “We musicians love his music and we are looking for opportunities to play him. The question is, do we have the time?” Do we make the opportunities or do others come to us?” he said, noting that the struggle to make a living with their art leaves musicians little time available.
This concert brought attention to the fact that Greece is the only country in which modern composers consistently use the work of famous poets in their music production.
Responding to the comment that the style of Koukos, Kassotis, and Papadimitriou seems very contemporary, Laaris explained that the style of their work is basically “from the Hadjidakis era…. a total style with ‘Greek-ness’. When I say ‘Greek-ness’, I mean that there’s a lot of modality there, not only in major or minor…. even Ravel writes in very modal ways,” he said, explaining that the characteristic sound to which he was referring is attributed to ‘mijoludia’, one of the ancient scales, heard in the concert that evening. ”Our Greek composers really do base their music on this, shall we say, ‘exotic’ sound”.
When asked how the US public can become more informed about these three and other Greek composers, Ms. Karaianni said, “Greece has a lot of culture that doesn’t travel outside of Greece; this leaves many with the impression that Greek music is only Hadjidakis and Theodorakis, which it is not, actually. Without meaning to criticize, I think that Greece should promote lesser-known composers and other artists out of Greece, as well. The Onassis Foundation is the only one that tries to support this…. and now there is the new Onassis Cultural Center — Athens that will move in that direction, because it’s very important.
Her favorite song out of all those she performed, although choosing is difficult, said Ms. Karaianni, is Savvas Kassotis’ So Much I Gazed (Etsi Polu Atenisa), set to Cavafy, because “he is a poet that my father liked very much, and I think the way he puts music to the poetry suits it very well. But it’s a very difficult choice, because Papadimitriou wrote Come Back (Epestrece) and The City (H Polis) for me, for my voice, and this is very exciting for me every time I sing it. All the compositions I sing are like children to me.”
Both Irini Karaianni and Nikolaos Laaris have won awards and have performed prolifically to great acclaim. Their accomplishments are far too numerous to detail. Here is a very short list of their credits:
Irini Karaianni’s performances are remarkable for her command of the Baroque repertoire. She studied music at both the Atheneum and the National Conservatory and French literature at the University of Athens. She has been granted scholarships from the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation and the Maria Callas Foundation. Ms. Karaianni made her debut singing the part of Electra from the opera Pylades by G. Kouroupos at the Athens Megaron, after which she has interpreted many leading parts. After winning the Giuseppe di Stefano international contest in 1998, she interpreted the role of Carmen in many theaters all over Italy.
Nikolaos Laaris, also a conductor, has toured Germany and France, performed in Greece, London, and the US, and appeared with orchestras in Greece, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the US. In 2000 joined the Munich Ballet Theater as a piano soloist. Laaris, who holds degrees in harmony, counterpoint, and fugue, and has attended master classes in conducting in Vienna and Freiburg, studied piano, violin, and theory at the Athens Conservatory before obtaining his masters degree at the Royal College of Music in London, and his doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, where he regularly conducts new music and is the Coordinator of Aural Skills. He has studied with several famous teachers, such as Nina Svetlanova and Pierre Boulez.