Athens Festival goes back to Day 1 with very first concert

The Athens Festival was launched at the Herod Atticus theater on August 24, 1955, with a performance by the Athens State Orchestra as its inaugural event. Tonight, exactly half a century later, the orchestra will mark the festival’s 50th anniversary with the same program of works rendered on opening night. But, despite this triumphant note, it is sad to note that problems have plagued Greece’s first symphony orchestra. The Athens State Orchestra has developed considerably over the years, but unsettled fundamental issues have subdued its overall progress. For instance, the orchestra lacks a home base for rehearsals, while one government after another has fallen short of providing its full backing. The orchestra has also needed to cope with administrative shortcomings. Highlighting its often rudderless state, the Athens State Orchestra was led for three years by a temporarily appointed deputy director, the gifted pianist Aris Garoufalis. Conductor Byron Fidetzis has led the orchestra, with this same ephemeral title, over the past year. For the time being, however, it would be best to confine ourselves to tonight’s 50th anniversary event. The orchestra, on the festival’s opening night, was directed by Theodoros Vavayiannis. Fidetzis will be on the podium tonight. The repertoire remains unchanged. There is Handel’s «Largo» in a more recent, rearranged version; «Byzantine Sacrifice,» a three-part symphony by Petros Petridis; three arias featuring mezzo-soprano Antigone Papoulka (taken from Gluck’s «Alceste,» Mozart’s «La Clemenza di Tito,» and Haydn’s «Orpheus and Eurydice») and, for the evening’s second part, a rendition of Sibelius’s Symphony No 2 in D Major, Opus 43. When asked whether he would have culled the same works for a concert program today, Fidetzis responded: «Certainly not! I’m highly surprised [by the selections made 50 years ago]. Not that they’re bad works; on the contrary. Petridis’s composition is superb, and I’ve conducted it on numerous occasions. Manos Hadjidakis adored it. As for Sibelius’s second symphony, I don’t need to say anything. I’ve conducted the work twice in Russia, and I’m glad about getting the chance to do it again. The arias are great, too, but I wonder how Vavayiannis got hold of Haydn’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ and Handel’s reworked version of ‘Largo.’ Their coexistence puts me off a little bit, but even so, they’re good works.» Fidetzis, when asked to comment on the Athens State Orchestra’s association with the Athens Festival over the past 50 years, said that, despite a strong beginning, the relationship has deteriorated over time. «The Athens State Orchestra’s contribution was continuous and steady during the early years. Later on, its participation became restricted to as little as a single performance [for the season]. But, shouldn’t it be taken for granted that an orchestra which has achieved a high standard should be given a more important role in the city’s festival? That’s how it goes in the rest of the world,» Fidetzis protested. «Naturally, the festival should have the right to decide on the orchestra’s participation and the content of concerts – but not this, the orchestra’s exclusion from the festival.» The conductor said he intended to discuss the issue with the festival’s new director, Giorgos Loukos. «I hope there will be a bond… But how am I supposed to discuss and program things as a deputy director,» Fidetzis said. «I’ve repeatedly asked the Culture Ministry to put an end to this state of partial commitment by appointing a proper director. «And, I’m not saying that it has to be me – somebody,» he continued. «I’m able to understand somebody holding a deputy position for a few months during a three-year tenure. But, in this case, it’s been a year. What can a temporarily appointed deputy manage to do? An orchestra cannot carry on like this, and, more importantly, develop.» Fidetizis said the orchestra’s homelessness was one of its biggest problems. «When we have rehearsals I don’t know where to stage them. For the concert on the 24th [tonight], ERT [state radio and television] allowed us to use its studio C. But I don’t know where we’ll be practicing for our September 7 performance, which will be conducted by the renowned Russian maestro Fyodor Glushchenko with Sgouros, Tsambalis, and Doukakis as the soloists,» Fidetizis said. «As for the Megaron [Athens Concert Hall], I wasn’t able to secure anything there. These are conditions that do not permit the Athens State Orchestra to develop the qualities it has proven it possesses.»