An ideal performer of contemporary musical works

In 1997, when Ermis Theodorakis was 19 years old, composer Iannis Xenakis wrote that he considered the young pianist the ideal interpreter of his works. Last year, the soloist was honored for his contribution to Greek music by the International Music Council of UNESCO. Theodorakis is known for his interpretation of works by Anton Webern, Arnold Schonberg, Olivier Messiaen and Xenakis – demanding composers whose music seems impenetrable to most. Theodorakis will appear at the Athens Concert Hall’s Mitropoulos Hall interpreting Minas Borboudakis’s Piano Concerto tomorrow, while he is scheduled to play Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 111 at the Goethe Institute in April. What is it that attracts you to a kind of music which, to most people, appears impervious? Precisely that. The challenge of the impenetrable as well as the challenge of offering the public the sense of adventure when it comes to approaching a kind of music which goes beyond the boundaries and experience of most people. Perhaps these works don’t possess the kind of elements which usually facilitate contact with the audience, such as a tune, for instance. Yet at the same time, that’s exactly where their force lies: They make up a completely different musical world. If the pianist understands this world, he might lead his public to an intense experience, which might result in the latter accepting this music and broadening their spectrum. As a student I began working with the classical repertoire. But I was 11 when I began following Yiannis Ioannidis’s composition class. That’s where I came into contact with some of the works of Schonberg and Messiaen. I became interested in their sound nearly from the very first moment. A few years later, during my first concert, I interpreted works by Webern, Berg and Schonberg. What’s the key in order for someone to enter this world? To begin with, one has to get rid of any kind of prejudice and follow each composer’s ideas – what they suggest, what they have to offer. I don’t think that the public ought to do its homework before attending a concert. I think that the musical elements, especially in great works, are so intense that they operate irrespectively of whether the public is familiar with this repertoire or not, whether it understands this music from a theoretical perspective or not. Does the fact that this particular field has a limited audience ever bother you? Wouldn’t you rather face a broader public? Sure. But I’m optimistic because, from what I see, it is making an increasingly bigger impression, including on those who are not even familiar with the traditional repertoire of classical music. Would you consider broadening your repertoire to include better-known works, such as those of Debussy and Bartok for instance, in order to reach more people? I’m interested in doing that, since these works are essentially the link between romanticism and the music composed after the 1950s. This way the public would see the continuation. The interconnection of ideas could be revealed through an interesting program; Debussy, for instance, ties in nicely with Messiaen and Xenakis. The works of Phillip Glass, Michael Nyman and John Adams are also part of post-1950s music. Are you interested in these composers? You are referring to descendants of Riley and Reich’s minimalism. They are not a priority. It’s a kind of music which moves between serious and pop as well as music for film, something which is not in my plans right now. In a few months you will interpret Beethoven, a composer who is not usually part of your repertoire. Is this yet another challenge? Indeed, considering that I will encounter all sorts of difficulties given the difference in style. Contemporary works present more difficulties on a technical level. Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 111, however, is a very complex piece, featuring a greater complexity of form. I feel a particular attraction to Beethoven’s last sonatas. They are very forward-looking compositions; they are nearly «modern works.» I feel the same dynamic in their conception as when I’m interpreting Webern or Xenakis. A well-known Greek colleague of yours once said that any pianist’s successful career was based on interpreting five popular concertos. What is your opinion? Generally speaking, I agree. But things are very different in contemporary music. The tendency here is to move increasingly away from the traditional repertoire. This is not a good development, because I believe that the same audience should follow both kinds of music. That’s the reality, however: In the world of classical and romantic music there are a number of «hits,» such as these popular concertos. If you’re good at these, it seems that you can build a career. A career, however, can be built on alternative routes. Contemporary music is one of them. Though the audience is limited, it exists, therefore there are opportunities. Though quite young, you have already recorded five albums, with a sixth to be released shortly. What’s your relationship with the recording process? It has to do with a studio; therefore, it presents a different kind of stress. Recording registers a specific point of an artist’s development. That’s where the stress stems from – not knowing how one will feel about the outcome at a later date. Meanwhile, recording is an integral part of musical reality, just like concerts. What was your relationship with Xenakis? I met Xenakis when the city of Thessaloniki was «European Culture Capital» in 1997. There was a tribute to his work and I gave a recital with four of his piano works, pieces I had already recorded in 1996. He seemed frail, yet he managed to come and thank me at the end of the concert and we had lunch the following day. He was not very talkative. He told me that he was not a great talker and that he preferred to keep his thoughts – good or bad – to himself. He did say, however, that as far as I was concerned his thoughts were positive. A few years later I received a recommendation letter from him in which he observed that I was the ideal interpreter of his works. That was the greatest gift I have ever received.

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