Honoring the memory of composer Iannis Xenakis

A dedicated friend and a wish of the Ministry of Culture to honor the memory of an eminent Greek composer brought about a tribute to Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), at the Benaki Museum’s New Wing at 138 Pireos Street. The tribute combines an exhibition of archival material showing the life and work of Xenakis, video projections and a round-table discussion on the composer’s «Oresteia,» which will be staged by a friend of Xenakis’s for over 35 years, baritone Spyros Sakkas, who will lead an ensemble of 400 performers for the last time today. The presentation of this musical «Oresteia» in one of the Benaki Museum’s halls, which has been especially transformed for the occasion, brings together the mixed choirs of the ERT state broadcasting company and the Municipality of Athens under the direction of Antonis Kontogeorgiou. There are also four children’s choirs numbering over 200 singers, a group of actor/dancers, actress Aglaia Pappa as Clytemnestra, Sakkas in the vocal roles of Cassandra and Athena – composed by Xenakis for the baritone personally – percussion soloist Adam Weissman and the Borusan Philharmonic Orchestra from Istanbul, conducted by Gurer Aykal. «I have performed this piece over 100 times in many different versions, all over the world,» said Sakkas. «This, though, is the first time it will be performed with a different twist, a ‘theatrical’ twist. This was my initiative, but not without basis, because it is one we had discussed quite frequently with Xenakis.» Xenakis’s «Oresteia» comes with a long history behind it. The first version was penned in 1966, when stage director Alexis Solomos had proposed to Xenakis to compose the music for a production of Aeschylus’ «Oresteia» he was then staging in the US. The composer responded to the invitation with a two-hour score. Solomos, finding himself in the uncomfortable position of having to edit the piece, kept just parts of it, but later, Xenakis used the entirety of the material to compose his suite. In 1988, the composer rewrote the piece for Sakkas’s voice and included the 16-minute part for Cassandra on the occasion of a performance he was giving at a gala event in Sicily. Next, in 1991, when the piece was to be staged at the Athens Concert Hall, Xenakis wrote the part of Athena. «Xenakis himself had selected Aeschylus’ verses in ancient Greek and used them as a basis to compose the chorals, which he in turn used as the basis of the music,» explained Sakkas. «In the first part, ‘Agamemnon,’ you have a male choir, which in the second part, ‘The Libation Bearers,’ positions itself around the audience and produces a series of sounds, either vocal or with instruments. The singing in this part is done by a female choir which runs into the middle of the third part, ‘Eumenides,’ at which point the children’s choirs come in. That is the moment where the Furies are transformed into Eumenides, taking the form of children, according to the composer’s whim, who thought children represent innocence,» said Sakkas. As far as the baritone’s theatrical twist is concerned, he explained that «it appears only in the parts for Clytemnestra and a six-member Chorus. Years ago I used to tell Iannis to give the piece a slightly theatrical line, because I found it a pity that it was just a concertante. Initially, he shied away from the idea because he had his reservations, but gradually we began discussing ways in which to make this addition and he gave me directions on how to go about it. He was already growing weak by this time. He wanted the theatrical aspect to have a ritualistic character that was not emotional, narrative or explanatory – just like his music. You see, Xenakis was always interested in approaching the intellect; this is what he believed in, what he believed would help people find a way to take those steps forward. In essence, this is also what Aeschylus’ trilogy is about: the steps from everyday human situation to a dynamism that leads to fundamental liberty.» The theatrical sections for Clytemnestra and the Chorus were written by Sakkas himself, using verses from the modern Greek translation of the play by K.H. Myris. The costumes and sets for the performance are designed by Vassilis Ziniadakis, the choreography is by Natasha Zouka and the lighting by Andreas Bellis. «I hope that we will get the opportunity to perform abroad this small ‘offering’ to the memory of this great artist and friend. We are already planning performances for Turkey, Cyprus, Italy, France and Germany, said Sakkas.

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