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The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation presented the New York premiere of George Tsontakis’ Portraits by El Greco – Book II, and other selections from Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartók. Left to right: Kurt Nikkanen, Rita Porfiris, Maria Asteriadou, Zuill Bailey, Tsontakis, and Spyros Mourikis. Photo by Eleni Sakellis
NEW YORK – The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation (HACF) presented the New York premiere of George Tsontakis’ Portraits by El Greco – Book II, and other selections from Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartók, performed by five world-renowned musicians on September 14, at the Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan.
HACF Chairman Nicholas Kourides gave the welcoming remarks noting that the concert was the first in-person event in nearly three years for HACF, the last event before the pandemic had been held in November of 2019, and it was “wonderful to be back together.”
He pointed out that the concert was special for another reason as well. “This concert is extremely meaningful to us, as it marks the first time we have participated in commissioning a new work by a major composer of Greek descent to be presented in its New York premiere by world class musicians most of whom are Greek-born or of Greek heritage,” Kourides said.
George Tsontakis, the 2005 recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, was called by Gramophone magazine “a giant of the American music scene.” In his new work, Tsontakis combines projected images of the great painter’s work with a contemporary music setting.
The talented quintet of performers included: Greek pianist Maria Asteriadou – an acclaimed soloist and chamber musician, heralded as “an artist with intense personality, virtuosic flair, unusual poise and intimate contact with style” by The New York Times; Grammy Award-winning Zuill Bailey – widely considered one of the premier cellists in the world; Greek clarinetist Spyros Mourikis – winner of the 1997 Carl Nielsen International Clarinet Competition, has played extensively throughout Greece and Europe; violinist Kurt Nikkanen – considered a soloist of the highest order, a graduate of Juilliard and, presently, the Concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra; and Rita Porfiris – an American violist and arranger of Greek and Chinese descent, who has performed across the globe as a chamber musician, orchestral musician and soloist.
In his remarks, Kourides thanked Asteriadou, who is also an HACF Board member, for putting the event together, noting that she is “a fountain, or even a waterfall, of musical suggestions and ideas. We are greatly indebted to Maria for her knowledge, thoughtfulness, energy, and enthusiasm.”
Tsontakis spoke with The National Herald before the concert about Portraits by El Greco – Book II, noting that the composition “follows the first version which was premiered in 2014 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death. Subsequently, a Consortium of five musical organizations commission a sequel by popular demand. As a Cretan-blooded composer, I am honored to lay my own musical art alongside of the greatest modern history painter of Greece. The modernism displayed in the great Master’s paintings is centuries ahead of its time and I relished catching up with him through my own work and impulses.”
“This 20 minute work took four or five months to create as combined with other work I had in progress,” he told TNH. “In context, the El Greco work preceded my opera drama on Lord Byron, The Air of Greece, which was commissioned and premiered by the Greek National Opera in December. There followed the creation of a Requiem in honor of my mother Argiro, premiered by the Albany Symphony in April. The three works formed a trilogy of pieces of personal importance and profound significance to me.”
The concert opened with Beethoven’s String Trio in G Major, Op. No 1, performed skillfully by Nikkanen, Porfiris, and Bailey. The charming piece was followed by Brahms’ dramatic Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114, with Mourikis, Bailey, and Asteriadou playing dynamically.
The second half of the concert began with Bartok’s evocative Contrasts, performed by Mourikis, Nikkanen and Asteriadou. According to the program notes, Benny Goodman had asked his friend, Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Szigeti, to commission a work from Bartok that the two could perform together on tour.
The concert concluded with Tsontakis’ Portraits by El Greco – Book II, introduced by the composer and performed masterfully by all five of the musicians, highlighting their impressive range in each of the movements, as the El Greco paintings appeared on the screen behind them. For example, Agony in the Garden captured the drama of the painting while Repentant St. Peter was an especially tension-filled section of the work reflecting the painting by the Old Master.
A reception followed during which audience members had the opportunity to congratulate the artists and thank them for a memorable evening. All looked forward to the next HACF event.
ATHENS - Despite having a costly Internet that’s the slowest in the European Union, Greece is continuing to attract high-tech giants, with Alphabet’s Google planning to create its first cloud region in the country.
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