It all began with a cello in a red case on the airplane seat next to mine. Up ahead sat a tuba, violins, violas, flutes, bassoons, trumpets and the rest of the instruments and musicians that make up the newly established Athens Philharmonic Orchestra, traveling to New York to measure themselves against Mahler’s “Resurrection.”
The concert took place in the legendary Carnegie Hall, with the proceeds from ticket sales going toward the reconstruction of St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine in Liberty Park, overlooking the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
Stepping off the PATH at the World Trade Center station, designed by Santiago Calatrava, and walking to the 9/11 memorial, I noticed thousands of visitors taking pictures of the artificial waterfalls streaming over the Twin Towers’ bedrock. The concrete shell of St Nicholas Church, also designed by the Spanish architect, stands in the well-guarded Liberty Park, on the east side of the memorial square.
I could see the shrine’s metallic skeleton, the wiring running through the different floors, the tributes to the victims written in marker pen on the concrete columns by those who managed to visit the church before reconstruction was halted. On one of the building blocks inside the church, there was an icon depicting Saint Nicholas. The religious painting of Christ Pantocrator adorning the dome was the only thing hinting at the building’s future use. The reconstruction of the church first began in 2014 and was suspended in 2017 for financial reasons. This caused great upheaval within the Archdiocese of America and eventually resulted in the resignation of Archbishop Demetrios in May 2019.
The new archbishop, Elpidophoros, stated that “it is the Greek Orthodox Church’s right to preserve a prominent temple in such a place, and it should not remain half-built; the construction must be completed as soon as possible. A lot of unnoticed will and effort have been put into this project. Soon these efforts will pay off and we will resume construction.” During the Archdiocesan Council’s last assembly, he symbolically fixed the church’s inauguration date for September 11, 2021.
The new archbishop is not the only one who is fond of symbolism. Yiannis Hadjiloizou, artistic director and chief conductor of the Athens Philharmonic Orchestra, told me shortly before the orchestra’s New York appearance: “A concert at Carnegie Hall could never solve the financial issues affecting St Nicholas but it could nevertheless help in washing off the whole scandal by bringing music to the church. Music is a sacred language that transcends religion. The message behind Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ has nothing to do with the Easter Resurrection; it expresses Resurrection as something that connects, that brings hope. When I found out about St Nicholas’ reconstruction, it was very clear to me what sort of program I wanted to put together.”
The Athens Philharmonic Orchestra was established by Hadjiloizou in 2019, and made its first public appearance in April of that same year at the Athens Concert Hall, performing Mozart’s Requiem and Dvorak’s New World Symphony in memory of Greek shipowner Periklis Panagopoulos. The orchestra is exclusively funded by his widow Katerina Nafplioti-Panagopoulou, who organized the New York concert. According to Nafplioti-Panagopoulou, the concert was also an opportunity to unite the community for a common goal. “St Nicholas is the last unfinished piece at Ground Zero, which was the scene of a shocking and terrifying act of hatred; but music, and Christian love, are here to unite all believers in a greatly symbolic way. This church is the only religious token in the area and its construction must be completed.”
Preparing the orchestra to rise to the challenge of this concert took tremendous effort. The conductor, along with the concertmaster, violinist Yiannis Georgiadis, held auditions in order to select principals and tutti. “We picked the best, experienced virtuosos, and decided to give young musicians a chance too. Through the auditions we realized how skilled the youngsters were,” observed Georgiadis.
The concert in the crowded Carnegie Hall began with the ballet/interlude from Act 2 of “The 9th of July 1821,” an opera written by the conductor’s father, Michalis Hadjiloizou, and was followed by “Serviko,” variations of Cypriot folk dances composed by Yiannis Hadjiloizou in 2010. Both works were uplifting and provided the orchestra with a warm-up before tackling Mahler. The Athens Philharmonic Orchestra was undaunted by “Resurrection” and the endless hours of rehearsals truly paid off, with a perfectly balanced result. The synergies with soprano Larisa Martinez, mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas and the New York Choral Society were delightful.
Back in the cool night breeze, the symbols slowly faded away as I walked along the concrete-flanked city streets, wondering what the future would hold for both St Nicholas and the Athens Philharmonic Orchestra.