Letter from Thessaloniki

Of course, Beethoven was deaf when he wrote his arguably greatest C minor piano sonata, Op. 111, his final word on the instrument. At the Thessaloniki Concert Hall on Wednesday – yes, our city has one of those too! – a distinguished pianist, Domna Evnouchidou, gave a stunning solo-piano recital of Beethoven’s late piano works, where the extreme technical and emotional capabilities of the instrument are explored. This precise piece – Piano Sonata No. 32 Op. 111 – happens to be my favourite piano piece ever. (Sorry Schroeder! You may have brought classical music to the Peanuts comic strip, but for you the master’s greatest hit is «Fuer Elise,» a piece I have always detested.) It was a rapturous recital. That is, it became one after the involuntary interval. All of a sudden, and following the opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 110, an undesirable, inexplicable hissing sound from nowhere obliged the pianist to stop for almost half an hour. Nearly everyone is aware of the importance of good acoustical design in concert halls. True? Well, nearly everyone. Obviously the managers and technicians of the Thessaloniki Concert Hall do not believe in the specific science of sound which is called acoustics. Nevertheless, after some 30 minutes the recital continued so that the final touch of spiritual transcendence was not missed. Though the audience repeatedly called Domna Evnouchidou back to the platform, she wisely refrained from encores. I quite agreed. Anything more could have wrecked the mood that the greatest of the Beethoven sonatas creates. On the other hand, George Papandreou («A fine and popular foreign minister but a poor PASOK leader-in-waiting not equipped to stand up to wrongly chosen advisers,» they say here) can hardly refrain from repeating himself. With his general staff plotting strategy, he traveled to northern Greece. In due course, he sat in for a DJ at the local STAR FM, a private radio station extremely popular with the city’s young, and spoke this morning (Thursday) on youth issues. Openly, he discoursed on several matters. On education: He stressed that the existing centralized education system is akin to a «kind of Soviet system.» On drugs: He, as the good-guy hero, repeated what he had already said a year ago addressing the plenary session of the Dublin Group on narcotics which convened in Athens. That the interrelation between supply and demand for narcotics «should prompt us to examine how we can contribute to combating criminality and whether it is possible for drug users to be kept from criminal circles.» Fair enough, he did not clearly say: «Legalize Them.» On Soccer: Aris is one of the two big star teams here. The other is PAOK. Unfortunately for Aris, its legacy to the game has been superseded, not only by a lack of money but also by declining performances that are worthy only of the second rank. «I’ll speak to Giorgos Lianis about that…» – to the deputy minister for sport – Papandreou waffled. Once again politics and youth merged in soccer. Later in the evening, the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce gave its New Year’s reception at the German-owned Kempinski Hotel Nicopolis. US Ambassador Thomas J. Miller – who was in Thessaloniki on Wednesday to lay a wreath at the Jewish Holocaust monument in memory of tens of thousands Greek Jews killed in concentration camps – returned once again today. Cryptic as always, His Excellency gave a predictable interview to Pantelis Savvidis of ERT 3 state TV. Everyone who counts in the city was present at the reception. Well, almost everyone. As luck would have it, the mayor of the city was not. He was still in Havana accompanying the Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios who used the occasion to, well sort of, criticize the US. How? Well, as the Thessaloniki-based Macedonian Press Agency accusingly put it, Vartholomaios «…mentioned the unexpectedly warm welcome he had received from the Cuban government and its president, Fidel Castro, as well as the pressures of the US.» Pressures upon whom? Upon him? The point remained unspecified. However: «The Americans cannot be pleased but the patriarch pointed out that ‘we are a party, not an ideology,’» as the dispatch concluded. Anyway, our Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos missed the reception, being on the other side of the Atlantic and engaged in fraternization between Thessaloniki and Havana. Snow started falling. On Friday, I went to see a drama club production of the tacky musical «Mamma Mia» at Anatolia College, the American high school in Thessaloniki – my old school. But, because of the snow, there was no show. Tom Stoppard’s «Arcadia,» where sex is blended with mathematics, and where the rational and romantic eras are in constant struggle, is a deeply intelligent play. However, the State Theater of Northern Greece, where it is on, has proven itself unable to give the play the revolutionary production it deserves. On the other hand, to turn a city like ours around is a revolutionary, or at least radical, rather than conservative, concept. Yet the younger Thessalonian activists of New Democracy reject the «radical right» label that is often applied to them, particularly by their opponents. Worse, both New Democracy and PASOK parties have, and have always had, expressly conservative wings in Thessaloniki. Possessing no interest in the world beyond the road ahead, their followers brood still on the glorious 1970s and ’80s. That was Saturday. On Sunday, I once again went to see «Mamma Mia» at Anatolia College, which, yes, is certainly musical kitsch from the disco era, yet it is soaked in a brilliant and uplifting attitude. Lyrics such as: «Honey, Honey,» «I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do» and «Money, Money, Money» still ring in my ears. Thus, with these broad principles, I conclude the diary of my past week in Thessaloniki.