Highs and lows from the fringe

Documenting some degree of concern and eventual relief on his blog about a concert he had organized last December for pianist Manolis Perysinakis, esteemed modern classical composer Giorgos Hatzimichelakis noted: «It was a difficult concert… I didn’t sleep the night before. I had imagined the small, 60-capacity concert room at the [Petroupolis municipal] conservatory being empty.» But, as it turned out, there was no need for concern. «The hall filled up… some had to stand. It was packed… A total of 80 people,» he continued about the performance which featured demanding works by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. These thoughts reflect a worrisome local reality about the public’s interest in less flamboyant cultural events. For his latest outing, Hatzimichelakis will feature as a composer at a concert to be held this Thursday at the Hellenic American Union. Organized by the Greek Composers Association, the evening will include works by Hatzimichelakis, Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Marin Marais, Sotiria Adam, Michalis Adam and Dimitris Sykias, to be performed by flautist Ivona Glinka. The evening will begin with a lecture by Sykias. Hatzimichelakis is likely to wonder again if the turnout will be satisfactory on Thursday night, or whether Greek reality will take hold. In an interview with Kathimerini, the composer likened drawing decent crowds to «being given candy.» «We often ask our master Theodoros Antoniou [a professor at Boston University] what audiences are like for contemporary classical music in the USA and he tells us that, in absolute numbers, it’s about the same as in Greece. That’s a great success for Greece, especially for Antoniou,» said Hatzimichelakis. «He’s fought hard for this as president of the Greek Composers Association. The audiences in the USA, a country with a population of more than 250 million, may be about the same size as those in Greece, a country of 10 million, but the big difference is that, unlike the Greek Culture Ministry and other related agencies, the respective organizations in the USA offer support to America’s 50 to 100 avant garde composers. I’d call that ‘state cultural egoism,’ something we don’t have here.» Born and raised in the largely working-class port city of Piraeus, Hatzimichelakis did not grow up listening to Bach, Beethoven and the like, but was nurtured on popular Greek music («laika»). Responding to the concerns I expressed about the heavy dominance of pop music in this land today, Hatzimichelakis seemed unperturbed. He conveyed an understanding of the music scene of today. «There’s an overproduction of songs all over the world. Good music that comes from the heart does exist, but songs are mainly made as consumer products, and they totally dominate,» contended Hatzimichelakis. «The music of Theodorakis, Hadjidakis and so on expressed the concerns of a generation with political unease, and even though it had the potential to open up to other styles as well, it remained focused on this scene as the generation rated this work as the ultimate musical product.» Asked how symphonic music entered his life, Hatzimichelakis said that «I probably prompted it myself.» «I bought Beethoven’s Ninth because [simpler] songs dominated anywhere you went. This kind of song is saturated with emotion. So, I bought a copy of the Ninth Symphony as a 16-year-old child. It scared me but I persevered. It was a release by the Soviet label Melodia, full of scratches and noise, but I couldn’t sleep unless I heard the Ninth,» Hatzimichelakis recalled. «At some point, my literature teacher Vassilis Skoulatos played us some Monteverdi and Prokofiev. That’s when I succumbed. I decided to become a musician, or a composer, if possible. I was 17.» When asked to address the issue of the West and East in music, Hatzimichelakis brushed it aside as «artificial.» «Is it a dilemma? Cultural identity? Does it mean something? Debussy was influenced by exotic musical styles and integrated them into his own work. Years later, [Olivier] Messiaen based his rhythms on Indian music. Did these people experience a problem of cultural identity, or an East-West dilemma?» asked Hatzimichelakis. «We’re possessed by an obsession with self-pursuit, which limits our mode of expression.» A life full of work Born in Piraeus in 1959, Hatzimichelakis studied advanced theory, Byzantine music and composition under the tutelage of Theodoros Antoniou at the Central Athens Conservatory. He also studied Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature at the University of Athens. He has composed commissioned work for state radio’s classical-oriented «Trito Programma,» the Athens Concert Hall and the Orchestra of Colors, as well as for a series of OIympic Flame ceremonies in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008. Hatzimichelakis’s work has been released internationally. He has held the post of artistic director at the Municipal Conservatory of Petroupolis in western Athens since 2001.