Letter from Thessaloniki

Salonica, or rather Thessaloniki as we Greeks call this gritty, lively, ancient port of more than a million inhabitants, has once held the title of Europe’s cultural capital. This was not so long ago, but as it was considered a calamity, we tend to forget the exact date. Bestowed by the European Union, the distinction is similar – and just as ephemeral – as the titles won by reality-show «heroes» on today’s TV. Strategically situated between the Mediterranean and the Balkans, and with a long history and culture that begins with Alexander the Great and ends with modern Greece, taking in the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires along the way, the city has had its moments of majestic glory in the arts. Although we Greek Orthodox tend to think more highly of Easter than of the nativity, Christmas is all the same a serious affair. Thus the light Strauss music grandly performed in this city was a seasonal extravaganza for Thessaloniki. Last week there was a Strauss Gala, a Christmas performance with the State Orchestra of Northern Greece at the local concert hall. The only full-scale classical concert hall in town, it is beautifully situated on the extension of the waterfront promenade. The anxiously anticipated event – tickets for the 1,400 seats were sold out in no time – flirted with the idea of competing with the Vienna Philharmonic traditional New Year’s Day concert. Closer to Vienna than to Paris at the turn of the previous century, Thessaloniki has constantly had an affinity with the sprightlier side of German music. Famous Macedonian composers such as Dimitrios Lalas (1844-1911) and Emilios Riadis (1886-1935) studied in Germany and Austria, and it is said that Thomas Mann himself was greatly impressed by the piano performance of Wunderkind Loris Margaritis, born in Thessaloniki. Swinging to three-quarter time, Thessalonians in the good old days (including the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews who came here in the 15th century, fleeing the Inquisition in Spain in such large numbers that for a time the city was known as a «second Jerusalem») learned to sing American songs with lyrics such as: «Oh give me the free ‘n’ easy waltz that is Vienneasy and Go tell the band if they want a hand, The waltz must be Strauss’s…» (by the Gwershin brothers). Alas! the sad thing about Salonica is that today it is physically no longer the oom-pa-pah place it once was – the cosmopolitan center on an exotic trading route, a city of churches, mosques and synagogues surrounded by the walls of a Byzantine fortress, where people danced to the music of Strauss. A fire in 1917, an earthquake in 1978 and some mostly unsophisticated administrations afterward did much to destroy the city’s multicultural character to the point where now, with the exception of a few neighborhoods and some restored Orthodox churches and Roman ruins, Thessaloniki for the most part looks like a typical product of modern Greek urban planning. No! Although Thessaloniki still retains some – very few – of its past decors, ranging from art nouveau to New Age, she certainly does not polka-heraus as she used to. All the same, the Thessaloniki Concert Hall did its best to replicate one of the most famous concerts in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s Day concert from the fabulous Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein. Only in the Thessaloniki counterpart, there were no rich flower decorations, no smoking jackets and remarkable gowns and costume jewels. Last Thursday, there was not even an essential flower decoration. Nothing at all! And in the concert hall itself there were several light bulbs missing. It was a wholly wretched sight. No! Vienna was far away indeed. Yet the worst thing was the conductor. Poor, unmusical and maladroit Myron Michailidis from Crete is light years away from Lorin Maazel, one-time music director of the Vienna State Opera and currently music director of the New York Philharmonic, who is going to direct this year’s event in Vienna on Saturday. Mr Myron Michailidis gave the orchestra the drill-parade sound of a military brass band. The somewhat youthful singers (sopranos Lisa Daltirus and Joanna Mongiardo, Canadian Camille Reno, American Brian Frutiger) who sang excerpts from «Die Fledermaus» – that piece from another world, a long-forgotten time when Vienna was all glitter, balls and waltzes – would have been excellent for the lesser Austrian operatic stages of Linz or Innsbruck, locations where they still play operettas in a ponderous style. It was all right for the Thessaloniki Concert Hall as well. Though it was not suitable for the Viennese Opernhaus. It is fascinating, however, to observe how a Strauss concert two days before Christmas and the few days that separate us from the New Year seems to mellow even the severest purists among critics. So, follow my advice: «By Jove, by Jing, by Strauss is the thing:» Listen to the traditional wake-up call in the shape of New Year’s Day morning concert, which is the only one that is televised around the world, from Vienna. This coming Saturday, tune in to ET-1!