German efficiency and Greek enthusiasm join forces

by Kyriakos P. Loukakos[1]

            Many among us have nurtured the supposition that German soprano Marlis Petersen, one of the few indisputable contemporary divas of Opera, has been the initiator of the Molyvos International Music Festival. While though Petersen remains faithful to it since its inaugural period, also in her capacity as a member of its Board of Advisors, and is due to return for more appearances for its 2017 edition, the truth is clearly stated in the printed program of this year’s Festival, incidentally a model of its kind even by Athenian standards. 3 young people were the founders of this new institution, the sister – pianists Danae and Kyveli Dörken, of German – Greek origin, and the local entrepreneur Dimitris Tryphon, member of an influential industrial family of Lesbos. In any case, an important new venue for classical music in Greece exists since last year on one of the most intoxicatingly majestic parts of this allround magnificent North Aegean island. Situated on its northwestern region and with an intact medieval castle overlooking a picturesque town and a golden blue shiny coast, Molyvos perpetuates the existence of the ancient city of Mithymna and safeguards a strategic point of contact between Europe and Turkey, the latter as a potentially decisive factor of further geopolitical uncertainty in the region, its mountains clearly visible just “behind the corner”.

Under the collective title “Crossroads” for the sum of its 2016 events, the Festival coincides with instances of pan – European geopolitical reassessments and therefore acquires a certain significance for values of political, social and cultural relevance, reflected clearly in the salutary message of British conductor Sir Simon Rattle reproduced in the program. Rattle considers the initiative as “a beacon of light in dark times” and sends his “greetings from the UK in the strangest time in our recent history”  stating further that “In the middle of such idiocy, what … [is being done] in the Molyvos festival is even more inspiring”. And the artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra goes on to stress that “the idea that music and culture bring people together and are a vital part of a greater healing is a concept deep in [his] heart”.

The truth is that, far from being pretentious, the spirit of cultural universalism runs through all manifestations of the Festival, including the texts on the separate concerts included in the program, shared among them by musicologists  Alexandros Charkiolakis, Daniel Knaack and Oğul Köker. This same attitude is foremost reflected to the participant musicians, coming from all over the world, some of them already universally known, others just crossing the verge of fame, many already participating to top European orchestras. The complete list of instrumentalists was an impressive line-up of global distinction and proved an additional guarantee that “Crossroads” wouldn’t be misunderstood as “Crossover”, since all concerts remained strictly classical while striving to convince that serious music making can be much fun on its own terms and without any lowering of the standards.

Strictly in alphabetical order, bassoonist Philipp Zeller (onwards PZ), cellists Maximilian Hornung (MH) and Benedict Kloeckner (BK), clarinetist Sebastian Manz (SM), double bassist Jaebok Cho (JC), flutist Daniela Koch (DK), hornist Bertrand Chatenet (BC), lutenist / mandolinist Alon Sariel (AS), oboists Céline Moinet (CM) and Philippe Tondre (PT), pianists Danae Dörken (DD), Kiveli Dörken (KD) and Lars Vogt (LV), violinists Sarah Christian (SC),  Alissa Margulis (AM), Danae Papamatthaiou – Matschke (DP-M), Anna Reszniak (AR) and Linus Roth (LR), as well as violists Timothy Ridout (TR) and Lech Antonio Uszynski (L-AU) gave their best in an adventurous series of artistic events, briefly, bilingually and ingeniously introduced  every time by the vivacious Dörken sisters. Further supported they were by a wide team of volunteers, many of them adolescents, among whom we have to reserve a special mention for our personal usher,  Yannis (he regretfully didn’t reveal his surname) from the Nea Smyrni municipality of Athens, who besides offering a model of alert, sociable and singularly polite service, followed all the concerts with interest and, in so doing, inspired a ray of optimism to us in times as dark as the unfathomable ones we have to live in. .

Our first sampling of quasi spontaneous collective music making came just upon our arrival to Molyvos, at a local beach bar, with clients being utterly surprised by the combined forces of AM and L-AU who introduced their brief offerings themselves and went on to gradually establish the silence that such music should always command.

The opening evening concert (16/08/2016, 21.00 hours), much to our surprise, was already sold out, leaving quite a few of the prospective listeners temporarily out of the proceedings which took place in the specially arranged open auditorium of the medieval castle, with the necessary sound enhancement and under a summer moon verging to its fullness.. Among its numerous guests we noted Academy prized poet Titos Patrikios and Takis Theodoropoulos, a distinguished author and journalist, while 2 members of the Greek government joined in at following evenings, first Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dimitris Mardas and, for the closing concert, minister of Home Affairs Panagiotis Kouroumplis.

A rhythmically alert reading of Tomaso Albinoni’s (1671 – 1751) 1722  concerto for 2 oboes in C Major, op. 9 no.9[2],  set the proceedings going, with an aptly pathetic rendering of its famous adagio giving way to an intimately and playfully vital finale. It was followed by the musically most substantial of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756 – 1791) flute quartet in D Major (1777, Köchel  number 285)[3]. It was a fresh and unaffected reading, delicately phrased, with superbly articulate interplay, proving that more significance lies latent than the prima facie presumed one, even in those works that Mozart composed for an instrument he openly disliked. We were especially taken in by the suitably gallant rhythmic verve in the outer movements as well as by an exquisitely poised slow movement, with a high order dialogue among flute and string pizzicati,  under the in between fully moonlit sky of the Aegean ether.

Of Moldavian ancestors but born in Warsaw, Mieczysław Weinberg (1919 – 1996) led a gloomy life, bearing heavily his Jewish identity, which cost him not only the loss of almost his whole family at the Holocaust, but also the persecution by the authorities of Stalinist  Soviet Union, where he had seeked refuge in 1939. In any case, he lived in USSR for the remaining 6 decades of his life and produced a vast number of works, most with limited hope of them being performed in his lifetime, despite advocacy by famous musicians. A close friend of  Dmitri Shostakovich, his music aroused renewed interest during the almost monographic  Bregenz Festival 2010. During its course many significant works of his were performed and the concerts were transmitted throughout including the ones involving Greek artists, namely soprano Elena Kelessidi and conductor Teodor Currentzis[4]. In this context  the opportunity to attend, on Hellenic ground, Weinberg’s 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, op. 47 no.3[5] remains far from common, let alone in such a devoted performance as the one offered by LR, a violinist dedicated to the Weinberg cause who has already a complete compact disc edition of his works for violin and piano in his record[6].

Some among the audience of this inaugural 2nd International Molyvos Music Festival concert were heard complaining for lack of folksy emphasis in the performance of  5 Greek Dances[7]  by Nikos Skalkotas (1904 – 1949), a suite edited by Walter Goehr and performed not only by symphony orchestras, but also by string ensembles as indeed was the case in the castle aula[8]. To us it was a refreshing listening experience and we took advantage of the unmolested perception of young and mostly foreign musicians, in order to focus on the quality of the compositions as absolute music, full of rhythmic and harmonic invention.

The inaugural concert was completed with the tricky 1891 Dumky trio, Antonín Dvořák ‘s (1841 – 1904) 4th  piano one, in E Minor, op. 90, a 6-movement composition that defies the traditional form of the genre[9]. The performance was superbly led and controlled by star pianist Lars Vogt who guided his younger colleagues[10]  to interpretative heights of enviable concentration and restrained pathos. All three musicians breathed together following a clear structural path and providing playing that combined tip toe delicacy with intimate, yet overpowering lyricism. A quite exotic program attended listeners on the next noon at a venue perhaps less breathtaking than the Molyvos castle but sonically more suitable to classical music requirements. The Conference Centre Hall of the little town by the Aegean sea may be modestly sized but possesses an ideal acoustic for chamber music. Works by an Israeli and a Syrian composer signified tellingly the unifying power of Music in this particular part of the world. Gilad Hochman (*1982)’s “Wanderings” (Nedudim, 2014) in its first presentation as an arrangement for mandolin, 2 violins, viola, violoncello and double bass[11], is accessible music mingling tonal Western music with elements of Jewish ones and formed an aptly atmospheric  preamble to a six partite suite for clarinet and violin[12] titled “A Scattered Scetchbook” by Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh (*1976), premiered in 2013. The miniature movements “range from an improvisatory lament to a hard-hitting dance”, all evoking the hard times of the composer’s land.

Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921 – 2006), one of Britain’s finest symphonists of the 20th century, is virtually absent from Greek orchestras’ programming. His 3 Shanties for Wind Quintet op.4 though are juvenile works inspired by original work songs of the English sailors and enriched this eclectic program with much piquancy on the part of the distinguished wind virtuosi at hand[13]. This adventurous matinee was completed with Mikhail Glinka’s (1804 – 1857) ’s early and incomplete Septet in E-Flat Major, in a performing version by Vissarion Shebalin, a work deviating from the universal model of the Beethoven Septet in that it replaces clarinet and viola by, respectively, oboe and a second violin[14]. Highlight of the work was its slow movement, imbued with a belcanto singing line of Bellinian melancholy, the part of the missing human voice vindicated superbly by the oboe. A fitting farewell of Philippe Tondre who left this same afternoon the island returning to his main duties as the first oboist of the Stuttgart SWR Radiosymphonieorchester!

Remaining concerts were equally full of divergent stimuli ranging, in one and the same evening (17/08/2016) from Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances in an interesting new arrangement for mandolin and piano[15], via the popular Adagio for Strings, op. 11a, by Samuel Barber, perhaps a bit too slowly taken for its own emotional impact by our occasional quartet[16], to an exultant Mozart Wind Quintet, K. 452[17], amply providing in this performance the reasons why its divine composer considered it his masterpiece. All this with enough space, after the interval, for a series of surprise offerings, under the unnecessary title “Classic goes clubbing”, sampling among others Ravel’s  violin sonata, Gershwin’s Promenade or Astor Piazzola ‘s Argentinian tangos, last arranged with gusto and brio by Sebastian Manz

Ross Daly’s (*1952) “Neveser 14”[18] and Dvorak’s  gloriously melodious Piano Quintet in A Major, op. 81[19] lined up to Stravinsky’s (1882 – 1971) exhilaratingly barbaric “Le Sacre du Printemps”, in its early, 1913, reduction for piano 4 hands[20] premiered by Stravinsky himself and his fellow composer Claude Debussy (18/08). And even the last concert, on August 19, summarizing the title of this year’s Festival, extended its quest far from predictable repertoire. It ended with the world premiere of “Passage”, a brief composition of cinematic mood by the young Greek American composer Athena Adamopoulos (*1986), not really apt for an optimistic curtain fall to a festival. Especially after a lengthy program that comprised a spirited performance of Franz Danzi’s (1763 – 1826)  rarely performed 2nd of his 3 wind quintets[21], op. 56, one of his most characteristic compositions, followed by a suitably romantic reading of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor[22], before introducing to the audience, rather slyly, the Nonet in F Major[23] by Franz Lachner (1803 – 1890), a work much younger (1875) than the 1861 Brahms one despite its looking backwards to Schubert and Louis Spohr.

Mainly remembered today for the recitatives he had composed for performances of Luigi Cherubini’s “Médée ” in Frankfurt in 1855, Lachner was nevertheless a productive and important composer as well as as the first Generalmusikdirektor of the Bavarian State Orchestra. His 1841 opera “Catharina Cornaro”, its plot about the last Venetian queen of Cyprus (1454 – 1510), actually preceeded Donizetti’s better known one of the almost same title (1844) and was revived in 2012 at the Munich Prinzregententheater. In this respect his Nonet’s performance in Molyvos was a valuable contribution to an out of the ordinary chamber music repertoire and to the reevaluation of a composer worthy of an international second look. All this incredibly happening on a Greek island![24]

[1] Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.
 Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a  CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by  “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
 As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory”  Society.
[2] Performed by PTand CM (oboe), AM and DP-M (violin), TR (viola), BK (cello)  and  JC (double bass).
[3] DK (fl), SC (vn), TR (va), MH (c).
[4] Of especial interest his opera Die Passagierin featuring Kelessidi in a moving impersonation of the title role and Currentzis as conductor  (NEOS51006).
[5] By LR (vn) and KD (p).
[6] On Challenge Classics
[7] Skalkotas  composed a total of 36 Greek Dances in the period between 1931 and 1936.[8] DP-M and AM (vn), L-AU (va), BK (vc) and JC (db).
[9] Interestingly violinist Ferdinand Lachner who, alongside cellist Hanuš Wihan, and Dvořák himself on the piano, premiered the Trio in Prague,  on April 11, 1891, is not to confound with composer Franz Lachner featuring in this Festival.
[10] AR (vn) and  MH (vc).
[11] AS (m), LR and DP-M (vn), L-AU (va), BK (vc) and JC (db).
[12] SM (cl) and SC (vn).
[13] DK (fl), PT (ob), SM (cl), PZ (bassoon) and BC (h).
[14] PT (ob), PZ (bassoon), BC (h), AR and LR (vn), MH (vc) and JC (db).
[15] AS (m) and KD (p).
[16] SC and DP-M (vn), TR (va) and MH (vc).
[17] CM (ob), SM (cl), PZ (bassoon), BC (h) and KD (p).
[18] AS (m), DK (fl), PZ (bassoon) and DP-M (vn).
[19] LR and AR (vn), L-AU (va), BK (vc) and LV (p).
[20] DD and KD (p).
[21] DK (fl), CM (ob), SM (cl), PZ (bassoon) and BC (h).
[22] AM (vn), L-AU (va), MH (vc) and DD (p).
[23] DK (fl), SM (cl), CM (ob), PZ (bassoon), BC (h), SC (vn), TR (va), BK (vc) and JC (db).
[24] All photos unless otherwise stated by Akriviadis and with kind permission of Molyvos International Festival