Thursday, April 2, 2009



by James Karas (Hellenic Press)
A number of fascinating Greeks got together last week (Jan 21) to produce a wonderful recital at the University of Toronto’s New Music Festival 2009. There were two poets, a composer and a mezzo soprano, to be exact. The poets were Sappho whose verses have been translated into Modern Greek by Nobel laureate Odysseas Elytis. The Modern Greek text was in turn translated unto French by Veronique Perl and set to music by Greek-Canadian composer Constantine Caravassilis. The five-song cycle was sung splendidly by mezzo soprano Ariana Chris.

The songs vary from a “melodious caress for the ear” to anger for unrequited love and passion, from attempted rape to subliminal eroticism. They are scored for mezzo soprano, piano and flute.

The first piece entitled “My Song” is a paean to the poet who knows that although she will die her poem/song will survive and “there will be someone to remember me” and the ethereal words that the Muses inspired her to compose. Caravassilis starts the piece with a few staccato chords on the piano and then the flute enters softening the piece. Then Ariana Chris’s gorgeous voice picks up the poetry and, one cannot do any better than repeat Sappho’s words, melodiously caresses our ears.

The second song, “Always Eros,” is about unrequited passion that turns to hatred. The lover is tormented by his/her love for the beautiful Atthis but she does not return the love. The rhythm becomes dramatic, almost frenetic, slows down and finishes on a crescendo as the tormented lover imagines Atthis flying towards the beautiful and tied-down Andromeda.

The third song, entitled “Virgin” lashes out at “him who wished to outrage me”. The miniscule victim of attempted rape is left without any hope and decides to remain a virgin for eternity.

“Adonis” is an elliptical song about the cold, beautiful youth of Greek myth. It has a plaintive, almost haunting quality as it laments the doves’ cold hearts. 

The final song, “Harbinger of Spring” celebrates the nightingale and its voluptuous voice. The song paints a subtly erotic picture of virgins dancing around an altar with their delicate feet pressing the flowers of spring. It has a lilting rhythm that perfectly captures the dance of the virgins.

The lovely-voiced Ariana Chris (as Homer would have probably described her) is fast building a repertoire in opera houses around the world. Last season she made her debut with the New York City Opera as Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana. She has sung at Carnegie Hall and with the Santa Fe Opera. Her other appearances include Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte in Nantes and Opera Hong Kong.

Composer Constantine Caravassilis was born in Toronto but was raised in Samos. His compositions have been performed in numerous countries around the world. He was recently awarded three gold medals at the Volos International Composition Competition.

The accompanists were Susan Hoeppner (flute) and Zhenya Yesmanovich (piano).

Much of the fascination of the recital lay with the verbal and especially musical connection across languages and eons. Sappho’s poetry is largely fragmentary but Elytis was able to refashion these five gems. Caravassilis has created a musical language for the poetry that is apt and beautiful. 

All Ancient Greek poetry was meant to be recited or sung to musical accompaniment. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung by singers of tales for centuries before they were written down about 100 years before Sappho lived. Homer left almost thirty thousand verses compared to the handful that we have from Sappho. Now there is poetry that is waiting to find a musical language. Why not start with the captivating Song of the Sirens and marry the Homeric verses to music to die for.

review article from
posted on January 30, 2009

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