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The Other Maestro

This will sound ethnocentric, but I will admit it: I was hoping for a mention if not a cameo appearance of Dimitri Mitropoulos in the film ‘Maestro’. It would have been a public acknowledgement of the albeit limited presence of Greek-Americans in America’s classical music world, the exception being Maria Callas.

Bradley Cooper’s film, which has earned several Academy Award nominations including for Best Picture, is on the life of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s career took off when he succeeded Mitropoulos as Music Director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1958. The change of guard was by no means a smooth one and not to put too fine a point on it, Mitropoulos was pushed out in order to make room for Bernstein. Anyone interested in the fine print of that process should get hold of William R. Trotter’s magisterial biography of Mitropoulos, ‘Priest of Music’. Given the circumstances Cooper may have wished not to tackle a controversial subject, even though his film is focused on Bernstein’s personal relationships.

Nonetheless, his omission reflects in a more general way the manner in which Mitropoulos was treated for several reasons including his own behavior. He arrived in the United States just before World War II and became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1949, and despite his immersion into the American classical music environment and American society, which justifies him being considered a Greek-American, the music establishment in the United States always considered an outsider. He was a private individual, he hid his homosexuality, and he also lived ascetically, something that may have been made easier by his close attachment to Greek Orthodoxy. When the extrovert Bernstein replaced him, the young American’s star quality meant that Mitropoulos’ legacy quickly faded into the background. This trend was sealed by his death soon after, in 1960, at the age of 64. Very aptly, Trotter’s first chapter in the biography is titled ‘The Forgotten Giant’.

Somehow, I feel this particular cinematic erasure of Mitropoulos along with his fading from public memory is reflective of a modest often overlooked Greek and Greek-American presence in America’s classical world scene. We often hear about the high educational indices of Greek-Americans compared to other ethnic groups and our success in many professional fields, and while this may be true, classical music is not one of those fields.

Take three major classical music events that took place this past January which had a Greek connection. In two out of three, the performers were Greeks, not Greek Americans. Greek-born violinist Leonidas Kavakos performed in East Lansing, Michigan as part of a trio with pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. At Carnegie Hall in New York City the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese organized a very successful concert in order to raise money for its schools. It featured the music of Greek-born composer and conductor Athanasios Zervas along with the Archdiocesan Cathedral Children’s Choir (led by maestro Costas Tsourakis). The third of those events was one with a strong Greek-American presence. It involved two Greek Americans, maestro Peter Tiboris conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with a cast that included mezzo-soprano Reveka Mavrovitis. Tiboris was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the launching of his career as a classical music conductor and presenter of music concerts, which began with a concert in honor of Archbishop Iakovos at Lincoln Center in 1984.

It was in researching and writing Tiboris’ biography that I became curious about the presence of Greek Americans in the classical music scene in America. Tiboris’ first encounter with music was playing the organ in the church of St. Spyridon in his hometown of Sheboygan in Wisconsin. The transition from that type of music over to classical music which he managed to do with remarkable results in not an easy one. I wondered how many other Greek-Americans had managed to that, or simply had chosen a classical music career. In compiling Tiboris’ biography I came across several Greek-sounding names of artists he had collaborated with or had appeared in concerts organized by his company, MidAmerica Productions. Those artists, who were born in the United States, as far as I could ascertain, included mezzo soprano Reveka Mavrovitis, contralto Yeorgia Magremis, pianist Aglaia Koras, violinist Barbara Govatos, and sopranos Mariana Christos and Phyllis Demetracopoulos. Most of those artists with Greek names I encountered were born in Greece but lived and worked in the United States. They included a close collaborator and friend of Tiboris’, the classical music composer and teacher Dinos Constantinides. My own quick research yielded several other Greek born artists: the baritone Nicola Moscona and composer and conductor Theodore Antoniou, and only one U.S.-born classical musician, Paul Alianopoulios.

This list is most surely incomplete, and it would be nice to see a well-rounded study of Greek-American involvement in classical music. Not to mention a greater public recognition of the life and work of Dimitri Mitropoulos.

 

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